Life’s Work: Bill Canning, Victorian art dealer, Kilkenny
‘Victorian art is undervalued because it has been out of fashion since the 1990s’
Bill Canning: “Victorian art has stood the test of time – the artists had great skill and could tell a story”
Bill Canning: “My favourite painting is a picture of Venus by Irish artist Robert Fagan. Years ago I was lucky to come across the painting in Christie’s and was luckier still to have bought it. I’m happy today to have it on loan to the Hunt Museum in Limerick for all to see.” Photograph of work: courtesy of Christie’s
What do you do?
I’m a director of Kilkenny Fine Art which specialises in high-quality and highly collectable Victorian art and furniture, especially paintings by both Irish and British 19th century artists. I sell at antique fairs and to private clients.
What’s your background?
I grew up in a small Kilkenny town called Goresbridge – known for its horse and antique sales – and went to boarding school at the age of 12. Many of the friends that I met in Clongowes are still friends today and some indeed are also clients of mine.
Outside of antiques I run a successful HR consultancy business with private clients throughout the country. I’m married to Gráinne and we have two daughters: Grace, aged 7, and Emma, aged 5. It’s a busy house.
How and why did you get into the business?
My parents always had, and still have, a great interest in antiques. In the early 1990s my mother, Peggy Canning, had a small antiques shop in Carlow which did very well and she had some great local clients. My father, Michael Canning, a GP, has a vast knowledge in all areas of collecting so it must be in the genes.
Twenty-five years later I’ve well and truly inherited the bug. Since I left college I’ve always dabbled in antique dealing. Over the years it has either supplemented my other business interests or at times was my main area of focus. The business, like most, is very dependent on how the economy is at any time.
In 2013 we had a house fire in the middle of the night. My wife was away – and I was lucky to get my two girls out in time. The house was more or less destroyed and all the contents were cremated. I also lost most of my stock of Victorian art and furniture which was not separately insured. About 20 paintings were burnt. One was especially important: Kittens at Playtime by Adrienne Lester, a 19th century English painter. Original paintings by her are hard to find. I had bought it in Edinburgh. It was worth about € 4,000. Since then, I have rebuilt a great collection with the help of family and friends. It was devastating at the time to see years of collecting destroyed but I look back on it now as a life experience. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
Victorian art is generally valued on the basis of three criteria: the subject, the quality of the picture and, importantly, the frame. If any one of those three is of poor quality, then don’t buy. Sometimes you can find a beautiful, well-painted picture in a terrible frame and even though you might be tempted, don’t be.
It may come as a surprise to some people but it’s not always about the artist and whether the picture is signed or not. All my stock is carefully chosen on the basis of these three criteria.
At present, Victorian art is undervalued because it has been out of fashion since the 1990s. But I’m confident it will come back into fashion and that prices will rise. That’s because Victorian art has stood the test of time – the artists had great skill and could tell a story.
Contemporary art is the emperor’s new clothes and I just don’t get it. Many of the paintings are abstract and don’t tell a story. Middle Eastern investors are now buying Victorian art and antiques. With technology, the world is getting smaller and my website – kilkennyfineart.com – has had inquiries from as far away as Dubai and China.
What do you personally collect and why?
I collect wildlife paintings by a Norfolk artist, Carl Donner. He is still alive, so for an antiques collector it may seem a bit strange but his watercolour pictures of wildlife are possibly the finest I have ever seen. He has been commissioned over the years to paint for the British Ornithological Society as well as the British Waterfowl Association. I’ve no doubt in years to come they will increase greatly in value; in the meantime are a pleasure to look at everyday.
What would you buy if money were no object?
I’d buy a stretch of private salmon fishing with a big country house overlooking it. One that could fit lots of fine paintings and furniture.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
My favourite painting is a picture of Venus by Irish artist Robert Fagan (1761-1816). It’s in the Hunt Museum in Limerick and was brought back from Italy in the 1800s by Fagan’s good friend, Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Nelson and Fagan started dealing in art together in the late 1700s. Fagan painted and Nelson then sold to wealthy Londoners on his return home from travelling the high seas. Years ago I was lucky to come across the painting in Christie’s in London and was luckier still to have bought it.
I’m happy today to have it on loan to the museum for all to see.
In conversation with Michael Parsons