From mice to musketeers, the rule of three – omne trium perfectum – suggests that a trio of events is far more satisfying than other numbers. This is certainly the case this month, when three Irish auction houses will hold their first fine art sales of 2021.
Beginning on March 22nd with Whyte's of Molesworth Street, followed by Adam's of St Stephen's Green, currently open and ending on March 24th, and finally de Vere's, also currently open for bidding, ending March 30th, there are almost 500 works to cater for serious collectors and those wishing to dip their toes into the world of collecting art.
Sought-after works by Jack B Yeats, Louis le Brocquy, Paul Henry, William Crozier and Hughie O'Donoghue feature, along with some interesting prints by Bob Dylan and Tracey Emin, in a selection that covers old masters to the contemporary.
One of the standout lots in Adam's sale is a rare stained glass by Harry Clarke, who despite being prolific in Irish churches completed only a few domestic-scale works. Entitled Bluebeard's Last Wife, and inspired by the folklore of Charles Perrault, it was created for the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland's exhibition in 1921.
The miniature stained-glass panel, set in an inlaid cabinet by master cabinetmaker James Hicks, tells the tale of the last wife of Bluebeard, the wealthy man with a penchant for murdering his spouses. His last bride discovers the horrors in their basement, where the corpses of his former wives are suspended by hooks on the walls. But the serial killer was outsmarted by his clever spouse, who orchestrated his downfall and took his entire estate (lot 63, €80,000-€120,000).
A further piece with a strong female presence is Michael Farrell's The First Real Irish Political Picture, which was inspired by the famed Francois Boucher painting of Marie-Louise O'Murphy, the 15-year-old mistress of King Louis XV of France. The girl, of Irish decent, had the audacity to ask the monarch – in no uncertain terms – if he was still engaged in sexual relations with "the old lady" – the all-powerful Madame de Pompadour, who ran the court for the indolent ruler. Horrified by the question, Louis XV is said to have fled his chamber, and O'Murphy was thrown out of Versailles. In Farrell's work she becomes a profane Madonna Irlanda – "one who is scandalously at odds with traditional female stereotypes", according to the catalogue (lot 51, €15,000-€20,000).
An opposing viewpoint on sexuality is Cecil Ffrench Salkeld’s painting of St Cecilia in Whyte’s sale. It tells the story of the Italian noblewoman who, despite taking a vow of chastity, was forced to marry a pagan. She told her husband on the night the marriage was to be consummated that an angel was watching over them and he would be punished if he sexually violated her but would be revered if he respected her virginity. He duly became a Christian and their union remained celibate, but the pair met their fate by gruesome deaths as a result of their public charity as Christians (lot 32, €1,500-€2,000).
Jack B Yeats
Waiting for the Ferry, by Jack B Yeats – also in Whyte's sale – shows a lone woman clad in formal white attire which contrasts sharply against the rugged mountain backdrop. The provenance of this painting is interesting as it was once owned by Helen Hooker O'Malley, the American sculptor and portrait painter who spent time in Ireland after marrying IRA officer Ernie O'Malley. She gifted this painting to her close friend, actor Liam Redmond, with whom she founded the Dublin Players Theatre in 1944. Redmond was invited to join the Abbey Theatre as a producer in 1935, by the artists' brother William Butler Yeats, who wrote his play Death of Cuchulainn for Redmond to star as the mythical hero (lot 29, €100,000-€150,000).
Adam’s also lists a Jack B Yeats, The Belle of Chinatown, of a little girl at a hat stall in New York, which is said to symbolise the artists’ mortality (lot 44, €120,000-€160,000).
De Vere's sale features a real cross-section of Irish art with works by Gerard Dillon, Peter Collis, Tony O'Malley and Evie Hone.
"It is a great sale for buyers in the €1,000-€10,000 market," says auctioneer Rory Guthrie.
One of the top lots is Collum’s Field (Fallen Tree) by William Crozier. Despite the vibrant colours in the work, the lyrical landscape artist once commented: “Exile has been my life. I have always felt in a permanent state of exile.” (Lot 11, €6,000-€9,000.)
Also listed is a work by Patrick Scott, the Irish artist known for his minimal modern aesthetic, whose centenary was marked in January this year by An Post with a commemorative pack of Irish stamps reproducing the artist's trademark abstract compositions. The work, Gold Painting – suggestive of the sun – is a shape that dominated Scott's oeuvre and is said to trace its roots to the artist's preoccupation with geometry, from his time working with the Bauhaus-influenced architect Michael Scott, with whom he worked on the design of Busáras in Dublin (lot 28, €8,000-€12,000).