‘Rags, Bones and Bottles’ – An earthier fair city in this 19th-century painting

Osborne’s view of The Liberties in Morgan O’Driscoll’s art auction

At the height of the economic boom in 2007, the annual Irish Art Sale at Sotheby's in London offered Rags, Bones and Bottles – a late 19th-century view of a Dublin Liberties' street scene – painted by Walter Frederick Osborne [see main pic]. It had a top estimate of £400,000 – then equivalent to almost €600,000. But, despite the "irrational exuberance" infecting the Irish art market (and all Irish assets) at the time, sanity, momentarily, prevailed and the painting failed to sell. Now a decade later, it is back on the market at auction in Dublin this week with a considerably more sober top estimate of €120,000.

What is it?

Rags, Bones and Bottles is an oil-on-canvas painting signed and dated 1891 by Walter Frederick Osborne, and measures 18x14 inches. It is being offered for sale at Morgan O'Driscoll 's sale of Irish & international art at the RHA in Ely Place, Dublin 2 on Monday (December 4th). The painting, with an estimate of €80,000-€120,000 shows a street scene in late Victorian Dublin – Patrick Street, close to Christ Church Cathedral. A rag-and-bone man was a type of itinerant trader who collected unwanted items – including old clothes, meat bones and empty bottles – from households and then sold them on. In the picture, the man, wearing a black apron, is carrying a basket, and is surrounded by urchins. Two of the children are barefoot; one seems to be offering a glass bottle to the man; the other is trailing a wooden toy, stalked by a puppy.

Who was the artist and is he important?


Osborne was born in Rathmines, Dublin in 1859 – the son of William Osborne, also an artist who was well-known for his popular animal paintings. Walter Frederick Osborne spent many years working in both Brittany and rural England. He died of pneumonia, aged 44, in 1903. His best-known painting, Apple Gathering, Quimperlé (based on his time in France), hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland. The highest price ever paid at auction for a painting by Osborne was achieved at Adam's in Dublin in December, 2001, when In the Garden, Castlewood Avenue' (Osborne was born at 5 Castlewood Ave, Rathmines) fetched IR£748,000. In November 2013, The Ferry (which depicts the harbour at Rye, East Sussex on the south English coast) made €490,000 at a de Veres auction in Dublin – the highest price paid for a painting at auction in Ireland that year.

What inspired the artist to paint ‘Rags, Bones and Bottles’?

Osborne was living in England at the time – but occasionally visiting his native Dublin – when he made this painting. It was part of a series he made of Dublin life – the best-known is Dublin Streets: a Vendor of Books which shows a bookseller's stall on Eden Quay and is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland. Osborne showed the paintings in the Royal Academy in London in 1891. They were not especially well-received. The reviewer for the Belfast newspaper, The Northern Whig, commented that "Rags, Bones and Bottles depicted "huckster life as it may be seen every day in certain quarters of 'dear, dirty Dublin'." But the painting did sell – for an unknown sum.

Where has it been since then?

After 90 years, Rags, Bones and Bottles tuned up in an auction at Adam's in Dublin, in 1981 and was acquired by the present owner for IR£17,000. The owner then put it up for sale at Sotheby's in 2007 where it was assigned the astonishing estimate of £300,000-£400,000. It was left on the shelf. Now, a decade later, with the valuation slashed, it's back on the block.

What does the catalogue say?

According to Kenneth McConkey, critic and author, Patrick Street near Christ Church Cathedral is the "reference point for Rags, Bones and Bottles" and that "looking northwards the joining lanes on the left of the picture throw shafts of afternoon sunlight across it, touching the tower of Christ Church". Here the artist found "a world far from the middle-class gentility of Rathmines, the suburb where he grew up. Filled with market stalls, seedy shops, carts and traffic of the humblest kind, it lay between the two great cathedrals of Christ Church and St Patrick. Ragamuffins provided a foil to the drab setting; fruit-sellers, fish merchants, hawkers and a tinker or two were parked on the pavements in front of taverns and tick shops. A rare customer, spending a few coppers, would attract a shoal of urchins, begging for farthings."

What else is in the sale?

Paintings, sculptures and prints by Irish and international artists. In all, 159 lots will go under the hammer including Lot 24, The Village by the Bog by Paul Henry (€60,000-€80,000) [see pic]; and Lot 46, The Turf Cart, Roundstone by Letitia Marion Hamilton €8,000-€12,000 [see pic]; and Lot 69 The Kiss (bronze sculpture, number seven from an edition of nine, a maquette for the sculpture opposite the National Concert Hall on Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin) by Rowan Gillespie €8,000-€12,000 [see pic]. Other artists in the auction include Basil Blackshaw, William John Leech, Tony O'Malley, Daniel O'Neil, Markey Robinson, Ivan Sutton and many more.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques