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Sir John Lavery Portrait Headlines Sotheby’s Irish Sale

An important portrait by Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) and undoubtedly the most important early masterpiece by Louis le Brocquy (b. 1916) will headline Sotheby’s annual Irish Sale in London on Thursday, 6 May 2010. Over 65 works from the sale are to be part of an extensive touring exhibition which starts at Lismore Castle Arts, Co. Waterford, on 17-18 April, and then continues in Dublin between 20-21 April and Belfast from 23-24 April.

The Gold Turban by Sir John Lavery (lot 30) is considered one of the finest portraits by the artist of his wife Hazel (1880-1935). Painted in 1929, it is the most significant late portrait of one of Lavery’s most glamorous subjects and his favourite model. Estimated at £400,000-600,000 (€441,000-665,000), the picture showcases the artist’s skilful handling of paint in the sitter’s headwear – rendered in shimmering tones – luminescent skin and slash of red lipstick. These elements are accentuated by the contrasting dark background and costume. Married in July 1909, the couple was renowned in London society, playing host to the Churchills, the Coopers, the Asquiths and many other glitterati of the period. Hazel Lavery was photographed by the renowned society photographer Cecil Beaton, the face of an early Pond’s Cold Cream advertising campaign and achieved present and posthumous fame as Kathleen ni Houlihan on Irish banknotes. Throughout her twenty-five year marriage, she posed for full-lengths, half-lengths, ovals and head studies, culminating in The Gold Turban. Following Lavery’s election to the Royal Academy in 1911, one of his early exhibits was a portrait of Hazel entitled The Silver Turban, which was succeeded by a calvacade of portraits noted for their colour harmonies, including Hazel in Black and Gold and Hazel in Rose and Gold. In the present work the ‘belle allure’ of the earlier portraits reaches an intensity not seen elsewhere in Lavery’s oeuvre. Swathed in fur, Lady Lavery glances to her side, her Uhlan-style headwear shadowing her eyes. With this work, Lavery demonstrated his ongoing formal and ‘artistic’ concerns, yet he also imparted to his wife a seductive, animated quality, something many of her portraits had not yet revealed. The Gold Turban will also grace the front cover of Kenneth McConkey’s monograph, Lavery, A Painter and his World, published by Atelier Books in April 2010.

Of equal rarity is a seminal work by Louis Le Brocquy. Painted in 1941, Spanish Shawl, A Study in White, is undoubtedly the most important early masterpiece by the artist, both in terms of his own development and within the wider canon of Irish art (lot 70). It was exhibited in 1943 at the inaugural ‘Irish Exhibition of Living Art’ (I.E.L.A.), a venture in part conceived by le Brocquy to provide a crucial forum for avant-garde artists. Never before offered at auction, the painting was first owned by Mary Rynne, mother of Stephen Rynne, one of the younger and more progressive critics of the period who had praised the work. It captures an informal gathering at le Brocquy’s family home in Dublin; at the centre of the composition is the model Hazel Malcolm Douglas, on the left is the artist’s brother Noel, on the right is his brother-in-law Professor F.S. Stewart. In a reference to Velasquez, le Brocquy has also painted himself – his jacket and trousers are just visible in the upper left corner. Spanish Shawl, A Study in White is estimated at £300,000-500,000 (€331,000-555,000).

Roderic O’Conor’s (1860-1940) Paysage Ensoleillé (lot 32), painted in Pont-Aven (Brittany) circa 1884, dates to a formative period for the only Irish member of the Pont-Aven School of artists (estimate £150,000-200,000 / €166,000-221,000). Daring in both subject and technique, it is a contrejour landscape, with the light source facing the viewer to produce a scene of intense contrasts in which the brightness of local colours tend to either bleach or darken, whilst forms resolve themselves into flat, simplified planes. O’Conor interprets the scene as a sequence of parallel planes alternating between sunlight and shade, and he deploys a rich, textured impasto with touches of non-naturalistic colour. In 1894, O’Conor befriended Gauguin, at a time when he was rapidly developing his own brand of nature-inspired expressionism.

A striking self portrait by Sean Keating (1889-1977) showcases to dramatic effect the artist’s technical skills, at a time when he was working towards both his first one-man exhibition and membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy. Self Portrait in a Bear Skin (lot 31), estimated at £70,000-100,000 (€77,500-111,000), was painted in Dublin between 1916 and 1919 upon completion of Keating’s training under Sir William Orpen. Orpen considered portraiture an opportunity to demonstrate artistic prowess and the present work is clearly executed in the manner of Orpen’s own romantic and monumental self portraits. The theatricality of the staging, the placement of a half length figure against a simple coloured backdrop, the lighting which accentuates the angularity of the facial features, the confidently fluid brushstrokes, and Keating’s bold stance combine to evoke a formidable presence.

Another work by Lavery in the sale, The Morning Ride (lot 33, est. £100,000-150,000 / €111,000-166,000), demonstrates the artist’s fascination for equestrian portraiture and a revival of the oval portrait. Painted in Tangiers in 1909, The Morning Ride is a distillation of the artist’s criteria for his romantic, idealised portraits of the period, though the present equestrienne is most probably Mary Auras, who had already posed for several Tangier canvases.

The section of the sale comprising nineteenth century works will include a highly important historical view of Dublin Bay in the late 1860s observed from Seapoint station towards West Pier, Dun Laoghaire. Painted by Richard Burgess Beechey (1808-1985), View of Part of Dublin Bay, From the Rocks between Salthill and Seapoint Stations (lot 3) is an early record of the Irish rail network and the newly developed Seapoint station completed in 1862. The artist delights in the details of the scene and the bay is a hive of activity, with each element demonstrating the continual historical importance of the bay in the life of the city. It is estimated at £20,000-30,000 (€22,100-33,100).

A painting of the last great Irish harper-composer by James Christopher Timbrell (1807-1850), Carolan, The Irish Bard (lot 5), is estimated at £30,000-50,000 (€33,100-55,500). It depicts Turlough Carolan (1670-1738), who entertained the famous and wealthy in the big houses and castles throughout Ireland. One of Timbrell’s most ambitious paintings, the present work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844 and places Carolan in a prominent position, commanding the attention of his attentive audience.

A broad selection of works by Aloysius O’Kelly (1853-1941) comes to the market from a private collection, acquired directly from the artist (lots 10-26). Neglected for much of the twentieth century, O’Kelly is rightfully gaining recognition as an important figure in the history of Irish art, and a new monograph on the artist by Niamh O’Sullivan has just been published (Aloysius O’Kelly, Art, Nation, Empire, Field Day Publications). He was trained in Paris in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme and took trips to Brittany in the summer months during this period (lot 15, Breton Girls on a Beach, estimate £20,000-30,000 / €22,100-33,100). A member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, together with his three brothers, he worked as a pictorial journalist for the Illustrated London News from 1881, focusing in large part on the atrocities suffered by the Irish peasantry in the Land War in the West of Ireland. In 1884 O’Kelly accepted the role of Special Artists for the Pictorial World in Egypt (lot 17, A Street in Cairo, estimate £4,000-6,000 / €4,450-6,700). Following sojourns in London, New York, Paris, Maine and Dublin, the artist honed an extraordinary ability to capture time and place, as exemplified in the present collection.

Belfast Street Scene by Colin Middleton (1910-1983) was acquired directly from the artist circa 1950 and has not come to the market since (lot 37, estimate £30,000-50,000 / €33,100-55,500). Painted circa 1940, it is a rare early example of the artist’s vision of Belfast. Middleton worked in Northern Ireland throughout his career, building up an acute knowledge of his own home city both in terms of its unique topography as well as the people that lived within it. The present work depicts residents going quietly about their daily lives in the year following the outbreak of the Second World War, when Belfast was the target of bombing. A sense of quaint normality pervades the scene, which the artist has rid of extraneous detail.

Dublin was the main source of subject matter for the London-born artist Harry Kernoff (1900-1974) and Sotheby’s sale includes a group which unequivocally demonstrates his immersion in the local culture (lots 53-69). A resident in the city from the age of 14, Kernoff depicted local characters and well-known landmarks, and critics praised his ability to convey the tone and character of Dublin through his compositions. Examples include lot 53, Whiskey Row, Ringsend, Dublin, estimate £10,000-15,000 (€11,100-16,600), lot 62, Queen’s Mews Court, Dublin, estimate £25,000-35,000 (€27,600-38,600), and lot 64, All That Remains, Old Theatre Royal, 1934, estimate £20,000-30,000 (€22,100-33,100).

The contemporary section of the sale will feature works by artists such as Basil Blackshaw b. 1932 (lot 77, The Morning Exercise, estimate £50,000-80,000 / €55,500-88,500), Hughie O’Donoghue b. 1953 (lot 80, Course of the Diver I, estimate £25,000-35,000 / €27,600-38,600), a group of bonzes by Edward Delaney b. 1930 – one of the leading figures in the field of Irish sculpture in the latter half of the twentieth century – (lot 87, Swords of Steel, estimate £40,000-60,000 / €44,100-66,500), John Behan b. 1938 (lot 91, The Canal Bull, bronze, estimate £4,000-6,000 / €4,450-6,700), John Shinnors b. 1950 (lot 96, White House At The Last Stop, estimate £30,000-50,000 / €33,100-55,500), John Doherty b. 1949 (lot 99, The Odd Couple, Open For Petrol, Castletownbere, estimate £30,000-50,000 / €33,100-55,500) and Sean Scully b. 1946 (lot 92, Eriskay, estimate: £200,000-300,000 / €221,000-331,000). Eriskay refers to one of the small islands between South Uist and Barra in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Northern Scotland and relates to Scully’s ongoing practice of naming works after specific locations. The isolated ochre and white central form of the present work is certainly suggestive of an island form, surrounded by strong red and black tones which evoke the dramatic contrasts of weather experienced on Eriskay.

Image: The Gold Turban by John Lavery. Est. £400,000-600,000 / €441,000-665,000. Photo: Sotheby’s