Wrong title, right price? Reading into a Roderic O’Conor painting

`Woman Reading' is one of many works featured in Adam's Important Irish Art auction


Lot 43 in the forthcoming Important Irish Art auction at Adam’s in Dublin on Wednesday evening is by Roderic O’Conor and entitled Woman Reading. Except she isn’t. The catalogue note explains that “a close analysis of the painting reveals that the woman is in fact not reading, but is in the act of dressing and is putting on a garment, probably a blouse or chemise. The positioning of her left hand, which is pulling on the garment, has created a ridge of tension which is further confirmed as such by the excess fabric hanging below her hand. The positioning of her right arm and her inclined head is a further indication that she is not reading but is clearly in the process of dressing.”

So why the confusing title?

The painting was originally untitled when it was sold at auction in Paris in 1956 – among a large number of untitled paintings by O’Conor, the Roscommon-born Impressionist painter who lived in France. The buyer – a London art dealer – gave it the title Woman Reading, and the name has stuck, while the painting has changed hands a few times. It is now back on the market with an estimate of €18,000-€25,000.


Untitled paintings can be difficult to track in the art market and cause confusion and irritation to auctioneers, dealers and owners. Until the 19th century many paintings were not formally given a title by artists and some have become known by ascribed titles – sometimes simply a factual description of the subject. Yet titles are important. Visitors to the Louvre in Paris might be puzzled that French people flock to see La Joconde, an early 16th-century painting by Leonardo da Vinci. who was commissioned by a silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa. In English, of course, the world’s most famous painting is known as Mona Lisa. And just to add further confusion, the painting is known as La Gioconda in the artist’s home country, Italy.

It is quite possible that a new owner will change the title of Woman Reading to perhaps Woman Dressing but, regardless of the title, auctioneer James O’Halloran describes the painting as “a cracking thing, beautifully composed and [with] wonderful colour”.

Overall the auction has 169 lots including a large selection by Northern Ireland artists (especially Basil Blackshaw, who died last year) that attracted a strong attendance to a preview last week at the Ava Gallery on the Clandeboye Estate near Belfast.

Highest estimate

But the highest estimate – as so often – is for a Jack B Yeats whose Lot 16, The Talent, a 1949 oil-on-canvas depicting a singer on a Dublin stage that was once owned by Lord Killanin, is estimated at €50,000-€80,000 after failing to sell last year when offered with an estimate of €100,000-€150,000.

Lot 19, Clare Island from Achill by Paul Henry, estimated at €40,000-€60,000, is described as “a wonderful example of his early Achill period where he was still strongly influenced by James Whistler whom he had met briefly in Paris and in London. Its provenance is lovely too, never having been on the market before and having been in the same family since it was given to Prof Hanna in Belfast in lieu of a loan given when the artist was struggling.”

Apart from the paintings, there’s a small selection of sculpture lots by artists including FE McWilliam, John Behan and most notably Rory Breslin whose bronze head of a horse, Lot 60, Artemision Horse Study, is estimated at €4,000-€6,000.


This is a study of the horse’s head in one of the most popular and important displays in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the bronze “Horse and Jockey Group” that was found in a shipwreck discovered off Cape Artemision, in North Euboea, in 1926.

O’Halloran says the market for sculpture in Ireland is a relatively small part of the overall Irish art market and that collectors “have been less than enthusiastic about acquiring works of sculpture, preferring to concentrate on paintings”.

But, he says, there’s a developing market so perhaps a new generation of collectors is “less resistant to the three-dimensional form”.

Who’s buying? According to O’Halloran, work by sculptors such as Rowan Gillespie, John Behan, Michael Warren, Patrick O’Reilly, Rory Breslin, Carolyn Mulholland, Sandra Bell and the late Edward Delaney was being bought by “younger private collectors for their homes” while corporate buyers are tending to acquire a small number of significant pieces to augment a space in a development, “but these are generally very much part of the architectural scheme”.

Important Irish Art auction at Adam’s, 26 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, on Wednesday, March 29th at 6pm. Online catalogue and bidding at adams.ie Viewing begins Sunday March 26th in the saleroom at 2pm.

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