Auction Report: Seán Keating at Whyte’s


Seán Keating PRHA HRA HRSA (1889-1977) ILLUSTRATION FOR THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD – FRONTISPIECE 1923 oil on canvas 76.20×63.5cm

In 1922 the scientist Edward Hutchinson Synge, nephew of John Millington Synge, invited Seán Keating to undertake a series of twelve colour illustrations for a proposed special limited edition of The Playboy of the Western World. While the artist accepted the commission, for reasons of cost the number of pictures was subsequently reduced to ten. The production was then delayed by a year after Keating suffered from a debilitating accident. It was therefore only in 1927 that the last of the paintings was finished and the book published by George Allen and Unwin of London as a numbered series of one thousand copies. One of the first of the pictures, an oil on canvas which would be reproduced as the book’s frontispiece, was painted in April 1922, in other words soon after the project was first mooted. It shows a scene described rather than performed in the play: Christy Mahon’s account of his supposed patricide. Although Keating depicted Abbey Theatre actors in some of the pictures, here he used himself as the model for Mahon’s father, looking suitably dramatic as he clutches a scythe while cowering beneath his loy-wielding son. Likewise in another of the works, this time showing Mahon senior standing naked outdoors, Keating again served as model. The first of the pictures, which had been admired by Sir John Lavery and exhibited in the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1923, came up for sale at Whyte’s in Dublin last September. This was not the first time the same auction house had handled the work: it was offered, together with four others of the series, in April 2007. On that occasion the quintet made €155,000. Four years later they featured in another Whyte’s sale, this time individually. On that occasion only the first found a buyer, fetching €41,000. Another four years and again it was on offer, with a pre-sale price of €35,000-€45,000. This proved conservative, since the eventual price was €65,000. Also in the same sale: a copy of the 1927 limited edition Playboy of the Western World. It sold for €700.