Smurfit Irish art to headline at Sotheby’s London sale

Preview exhibition will show important Irish works valued at around €6million that are likely destined for private collections once sold

The private art collection owned by businessman Michael Smurfit is to be sold over the course of the coming year through various auctions by Sotheby's London. Almost 50 paintings are included along with a number of items of furniture from Mr Smurfit's K Club home in Kildare, with a collective value estimated at close to £6 million.

Smurfit began collecting art more than 30 years ago, a pursuit he has described as “a wonderful adventure; the friendships and friendly rivalries formed, the sweet success and the bitter ones that got away”.

He is now downsizing his collection after the sale of the K Club and his private home on the estate which sold last year for a sum estimated at around €70million.

In a recent interview with Sotheby's, Smurfit said: "At the start I had little and knew even less. I hadn't very much of a clue, then slowly but surely I became interested in art, primarily through my first wife [Norma Smurfit] and then the late Tony Ryan of Ryanair, who was a great friend of mine. Tony had a superb eye for Irish art, and he got me interested in other Irish painters too."


In photographs taken at his former K Club home, an alcove beside the stairwell depicts a small chronology of the achievements of one of Ireland’s most successful businessmen. The glazed display case is filled with medals bound by brightly coloured ribbons, indicating his many honorary doctorates. On top are photographs of him laughing with his children and grandchildren, alongside snaps of renowned political faces and dignitaries.

On the wall alongside this vignette, is his framed knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, as Knight Commander of the British Empire for his contribution to the NSPCC, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Society of Arts.

These pictures and memorabilia surround a brightly coloured painting that is considered to be the jewel in the crown of this notable art collection: Travelling Woman with Newspaper by Louis le Brocquy.

Smurfit bought the painting from Sotheby's in 2000, when he paid more than £1.1million (including fees) setting an extant auction record for the artist. The estimate at the time was £200,000-£300,000. This catapulted le Brocquy into a class he shared with David Hockney and Lucien Freud; living Irish or UK artists, whose works had achieved more than £1 million.

The work itself is considered to be one of four of le Brocquys’ iconic works. (When asked what painting would define each of the four periods of his legacy, le Brocquy replied Travelling Woman with Newspaper, A Family, Isolated Being and Stele: Hommage a Entremont.)

But Travelling Woman with Newspaper, from his Tinker Series, is the only painting from these four pillars of the artists’ career that is still held privately.

Commenting on the painting, Arabella Bishop of Sotheby's who was at the sale when Smurfit first purchased the painting said: "Le Brocquy's traveller pictures stand as the first truly modernist works in the canon of Irish art, their muscular cubism reflecting the artist's deep knowledge of Picasso."

The late art critic Dorothy Walker suggested, as abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning had seen the work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1949,  it was likely that de Kooning's subsequent paintings of women were more than likely affected by this le Brocquy work (listed at €786,000-€1.123m).

Smurfit's passion for Jack B Yeats, Sir John Lavery and William Orpen is reflected in the number of significant works by these artists, and several of the Yeats pictures have become well known through The Yeats Room at the K Club.

Lavery's radiant portrait of Lady Evelyn Farquhar that graced the hall of his former K Club home, is described by the auction house as "one of the artist's most sensational portraits, with the sitter striking a note that is both classic and modern".

Painted in 1906, and commissioned by her husband Captain Francis Douglas Farquhar, within eight years of its completion, the woman – who was then a new bride – was widowed. Smurfit purchased this painting in 2007 for £748,000 (including fees) through Sotheby's. It is now listed at £674,000-£898,000.

From the Yeats Room at the K Club, and appearing for the first time at auction is In Tír Na nÓg, by Jack B Yeats which Smurfit purchased from Waddington Galleries in 1988. The work depicting a young boy is executed on one of Yeats’ larger canvas sizes measuring 24x36 inches, examples of which have been strongly sought after at auction recently (€337,000-€561,000).

More from the Yeats family is a Portrait of W B Yeats by Augustus John, who appears to have painted four portraits of the noted poet. This work was painted in Connemara when both Yeats and John were guests of Oliver St John Gogarty at Renvyle House, and where Gogarty arranged for John to "do a serious portrait" of the poet. This is the only work of Yeats by Augustus John to remain in private hands. (€79,000-€112,000)

Another interesting Irish work and a reminder of the times we live in, is The Dublin Horse Show by William Conor. Depicting Ireland's largest equestrian event, which has one of the largest annual prize pools for international show jumping in the world, the event dating from 1864, has been cancelled this year for only the third time in its history, due to the coronavirus crisis.

The two other occasions when the show was cancelled were during the first and second World Wars.  In contrast to Conor’s usual Ulster characters and their everyday working life, for which he is well known, this painting captures smartly dressed onlookers, highlighting the show’s enduring status in the Irish equestrian calendar (€90,000-€135,000).

The Smurfit collection also extended beyond Irish painters, particularly towards Scandinavia with a superb selection of pictures by the Swedish artists Carl Larson and Anders Zorn. Other highlights include a painting by Alexej von Jawlensky and Sir Alfred Munning's The New Standard, Presentation of Standards 1927. Decorative objects from the K Club also feature, including a 9ct gold replica of the Ardagh Chalice.

The first sale of 19 works will headline Sotheby's Irish Art Sale on September 9th in London, preceded by a public exhibition, by appointment at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin from August 27th-30th. This will offer visitors a chance to see some of these classic works before they are sold – and more than likely destined to be hidden away in private collections.