O’Brien heirlooms, including rare sundial, highlights of upcoming Mealy sale
Dromoland crested mahogany chairs also for sale, alongside gold medal won by Tom Kiely
Lot 73: the armillary sphere sundial from Dromoland Castle
Any piece of furniture that survives from the 18th century has a tale to tell. But a sundial coming under the hammer at Mealy’s Chatsworth fine art sale, in Kilkenny on Wednesday, has a story that is a veritable aristocratic adventure.
Lot 73 (€4,000-€6,000) is described in the catalogue as “an important 18th century armillary spherical sundial with decorative finials and painted saffron yellow and charcoal black”. The unusual colour scheme is to honour the O’Briens of Dromoland Castle, on whose front lawn the sundial sat for many years.
The piece is being sold together with a receipt dated May 25th, 1919. In the form of a letter from T Crowther & Son, London, to Lady Inchiquin, it begins: “My lady, We thank you for order of the sundial priced £30,” before promising to have the device carefully packed and delivered to Ireland.
The receipt adds that the sundial, which dates from about 1750, was bought from the collection of Dr John Samuel Phene. An architect of French Hugenot descent, and a noted collector of garden statuary and clocks, Dr Phene (pronounced Feeney) was a famous eccentric. He lived on Oakley Street in Chelsea, where he developed a number of streets and houses; his name is still commemorated locally in a pub called the Phene, which he designed. Once George Best’s local, the pub is today familiar to viewers of the reality-TV series Made in Chelsea.
In 1903 Phene built a five-storey house that locals christened the Gingerbread Castle thanks to its elaborate decoration and outrageous colour scheme; one observer wrote that it was “painted red, the pillars and balustrades yellow, picked out with gold”.
After its sojourn in the more sylvan setting of Dromoland’s gardens, the sundial moved to Thomond House when the castle became a luxury hotel in the 1960s. “It’s a wonderful piece, and the provenance is impeccable right from the very start,” says the sundial’s auctioneer, George Fonsie Mealy. “It’s extremely rare for something of that size and magnitude, which has been moved on numerous occasions, to be intact.”
Also from Dromoland Castle come a set of 10 Irish 19th-century mahogany hall chairs with the hand-painted crest of the O’Brien family (lot 438, €10,000-€15,000). “To see a set of more than four with crests is rare. A set of 10 is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Fonsie Mealy says. Having come by direct descent from the O’Brien family, the chairs are being sold at auction for the first time.
Another item coming under the hammer for the first time is a large Killarney work davenport desk bought by the Corcoran family, who owned the Wexford Free Press, in 1864 (lot 682, €7,000-€9,000). They bought it at the Great Exhibition of Manufacturers, Machinery and Fine Arts in Dublin in 1864.
The sale contains many items from the Dublin antique dealer Jane Williams, who owned a famous shop opposite the House of the Oireachtas, and from other private estates. The old master paintings include a full-length portrait of the first duke of Ormonde, James Butler (lot 631, €25,000-€35,000), formerly part of the collection of the Earls of Shrewsbury at Ingestre Hall, a Jacobean house in Staffordshire.
Among the modern paintings are works by Louis le Brocquy (Lot 460, study of image towards Samuel Beckett, €10,000-€15,000) and William Crozier (lot 494, abstract landscape, €7,000-€9,000) while Gerard Dillon’s The Bridge (lot 525, €12,000-€18,000) is on sale for the first time in 25 years.
The 800 lots in the auction range from jewellery, vintage fashion and collectibles to silver, clocks, chandeliers and ceiling lights, furniture and porcelain. Lot 427 (€6,000-€8,000) is a suite of 14 early 19th-century Chinese hand-painted drawings on silk, depicting flowers, ceramics and birds. And lot 51 is a gold medal won by Ireland’s first major international athlete, Tom Kiely, in the US, in 1906 (€4,000-€5,000).
“Because of his success in athletics circles the British tried to claim him, and said they’d pay his way for him to compete in America,” says George Fonsie Mealy, “but he refused. He sold all the medals he had already won, in order to raise funds.
“It’s sobering to think that over the summer the hockey women had to pay their way to get into a World Cup final – and the O’Donovan brothers also had to pay to compete in an Olympic qualifying event in June. He was the guy who paved the way for all of these stories.”
Mealy’s Chatsworth fine art sale takes place in Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, on Wednesday, October 10th, at 10.30am; fonsiemealy.ie