Review of Results for Irish Art at Auction in 2020

Donald Teskey Coastal Report I - Erris sold at Adam's on 9 December 2020 for €35,000
Daniel O' Neill Flora sold at Adam's on 9 December 2020 lot 60 for €58,000
William Scott Still Life with Frying Pan sold at De Veres on 8 December 2020 Lot 19 for €200,000
Walter Frederick Osborne A Tale of the Sea sold at Whyte's on 7 December 2020 Lot 41 for €315,000
Paul Henry A Sunny Day Connemara sold at Whyte's on 19 October 2020 Lot 18 for €420,000
John Shinnor Estuary Forms, Limerick sold at Morgan O Driscoll on 23 November 2020 Lot 16 for €44,000
John Behan Westport Famine Ship sold at Morgan O' Droscoll on 8 June lot 73 for €27,000
Jack Butler Yeats California sold at Christie's on 14 july 2020 Lot 41 for £489,375


Following the spectacular series of results in late 2019, especially for blue-chip artists such as Paul Henry, William Scott, and Jack B Yeats, the ongoing recovery of the art market was expected to continue into 2020. However, after the usual quiet months of January and February, the Covid disaster struck and business almost ground to a halt for a few months as the auction houses struggled to adapt. Although online auctions were not unprecedented, they were usually reserved for the more modest end of the market, and some auction houses were more digitally advanced than others. However, the auction houses all adapted their modus operandi to the new reality and began to conduct auctions where both viewings and bidding were conducted online.

In 2020, auction houses adapted their modus operandi to the new reality and began to conduct auctions where both viewings and bidding were conducted online

A number of the more high-profile auctions were postponed to the autumn. The work on offer at these online auctions up to July still tended to be modest with few vendors inclined to offer major works in a problematic market and serious buyers unwilling to buy work they couldn’t physically view. Once the physical viewings commenced in July, though, and the pent-up demand was released, an extremely lively and profitable period ensued up to the end of the year. There were a number of new records set for both living and dead artists. You could speculate on a number of factors at play in this record-breaking rush to acquire art; buyers starved of dining, travel, and retail opportunities had plenty of disposable income to indulge their art interests. In addition, with the abiding low interest rates, many see art as a reasonable form of investment – and more pleasurable to have around than gold. Hence, the recurrence of the 2019 trend for high prices for the usual safe bets such as Paul Henry and Jack B Yeats. There were also those who took a punt on the enduring value of living artists such as John Shinnors and Donald Teskey – both of whom did consistently well over the year.

The highest price achieved by an Irish artist at auction this year was £680,000 for William Scott’s Deep Blues at Sotheby’s in November. Scott is unique amongst Irish artists in that most of his highest prices occur in the UK (only three of his top forty prices at auction over the years have been achieved in Ireland). After studying art in Belfast, Scott spent most of his subsequent life in England – apart from a brief stint in Dublin during the Second World War. To confirm the international reach of Scott, his Still Life, Green Edge sold at Christie’s in New York in December for $410,000. (His world-record price is still £920,000 for Bowl, Eggs and Lemon, sold at Christie’s in London in 2008.) In Dublin, Scott’s Still Life with Frying Pan sold at de Veres December auction for €200,000.

Jack B Yeats continued to do well although he fell short of surpassing his spectacular 2019 results at Whyte’s – in association with Christie’s – where he exceeded one million euro, twice, and had a string of very substantial sales. The dispersal of Ernie O’Malley’s high-quality collection of Yeats paintings was a major contributor here. In 2020, the highest price paid for a Yeats was for California, sold at Christie’s in July, for £489,375. This was an unusual, sun-kissed rendition of a place that the artist only visited in his imagination. Other notable Yeats sales were In Tír na nÓg, which sold for £310,000 at Sotheby’s in September, and The Sky Lovers, which sold at Christie’s in their January auction. Yeats’s best price in Dublin was €265,000 for Sleep by Falling Water at Adam’s December auction.

A world record was set for Paul Henry at Whyte’s September auction. A Sunny Day, Connemara sold for €420,000 – highlighting a trend whereby a host of good-quality Henry’s sold for substantial prices across all the auction houses. These included: Western Landscape for €330,000 at de Veres and Blue Hills of Connemara for €240,000 at Whyte’s, both in December. Another world record was set for Gerard Dillon when The Dreamer sold for £300,000 at Sotheby’s September sale. This was nearly double his previous best. Dillon is another Ulster artist who does well in London. His two previous best prices were for Lobster Pots (£170,000) and Self-portrait in Roundstone (£160,000) – both at Sotheby’s. Daniel O’Neill, a close friend of Dillon’s, also had a good year. The most striking of his results was the €58,000 hammer price for Flora at Adam’s in December. This guided at a modest €8,000 to €12,000, so the vendor got a very pleasant surprise. Morgan O’Driscoll achieved €54,000 for O’Neill’s Interior in November and Horseman Pass By sold for €27,000 at Adam’s, again in December.

Walter Osborne had a sadly attenuated career and quality work by him is a relative rarity at auction. There were only four works on offer throughout the year. A Tale of the Sea sold for €315,000 at Whyte’s in December  –  his best price since The Ferry (a much larger painting) in 2013. Osborne’s charming rural study, The Loiterers, sold for €90,000 at Adam’s in December.

Tony O’Malley’s prices have been fairly modest at auction in recent years. He lived a long and productive life and perhaps there has been a glut of his work available. Morgan O’Driscoll, however, achieved €60,000 for The Garden of Orpheus Summer at his July auction. This was the highest price paid for an O’Malley since 2008 – and not far off his record at auction of €77,000.

The highest price for a living artist was the £50,000 paid for Hughie O’Donoghue’s Vulcano at Sotheby’s in December. This was a large, striking work where the flowing, molten colour does justice to its title. John Shinnors continues to be popular and his top price at auction last year was the €44,000 achieved for Estuary Forms – Limerick at Morgan O’Driscoll in November. (It’s worth noting that the highest price paid for a Shinnors’ work at auction was the €70,000 the same painting yielded in 2008 – again at Morgan O’Driscoll.) Shinnors also achieved €25,000 for Three Cats at O’Driscoll’s November auction.

Donald Teskey had two very similar and very characteristic works on sale at Adam’s and Whyte’s in December. Coastal Report I and Coastal Report II featured the familiar and popular Teskey trope of waves crashing over rocks – spume symphonies. Both were acrylic on paper, almost identical in size, and they both had a lower guide price of €12,000. The symmetry continued at the auctions where Coastal Report I – Erris sold for €35,000 at Adam’s and Coastal Report II – Erris just pipped it with €36,000 at Whyte’s.

Another world record at auction this year, albeit at a more modest level, was the €21,000 for River Blackwater, October Evening, near Ballyduff, County Waterford by Arthur K Maderson. Maderson has been a hardy annual at auction over the years and his bucolic, impressionistic landscapes are perennially popular. Now in his eighties, he lives a reclusive life in County Waterford. A further very active artist (also in his eighties) who broke his auction record this year was sculptor John Behan. He currently combines trips to Greece (where he conducts workshops for refugees) with his steady output of bronze works dealing mostly with the Irish Famine – although his most recent exhibition embraced contemporary victims fleeing their countries for refuge in Greece and Italy. His Westport Famine Ship sold for €27,000 at Morgan O’Driscoll’s in June (estimate €10,000 to €15,000). His previous highest price was for £19,000 for The Blackrock Bull at Sotheby’s in 2013.

All the auction houses must be rather pleased with their overall results last year. For 2021, with lockdown still in place, expect some more records to be set.


John P O’Sullivan.


Transatlantic threads

Cuala Workshop, 133 Lower Baggot Street, Dublin c. 1932 (The Sixth Station, The face of Jesus is wiped by Veronica, is visible in the background).



The discovery of a set of embroideries from 1932 highlights a period during which the new Irish State was presenting a religious and ancient identity to the outside world, writes William Shortall

A set of embroideries commissioned by Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats and executed by his sister, Lily, for the 1932 Eucharistic Congress has recently come to light in America. This rare needlework tells a story of Irishness, religiosity and a transatlantic arts and crafts journey.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress, a celebration of Catholicism and the Eucharist (Christ’s presence in Mass), was the largest spectacle ever held in the Irish State. The religious celebrations also commemorated the arrival of St Patrick to Ireland in 432 AD, adding a uniquely Irish angle to the international event. Its acme was the celebration of mass by the Papal legate, Cardinal Laurie, in the Phoenix Park, which was attended by over one million people. The Irish Free State government, across a variety of departments, indirectly provided ‘considerable’ funding and fully endorsed the event.

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Out of the Blue

Mike Fitzharris tells Brian McAvera of his attraction to colour captured in the brilliance of an Irish summer or Spain’s Andalucía

Mike FitzHarris Tidal Movements 1991 oil on board 33 x 31cm

Brian McAvera: For the past twenty years, you have been living and working primarily in Andalucía in Spain, in the area between Marbella and Malaga. Irish artists have always been attracted to Spain, and in particular Andalucía, as with George Campbell or Mick Cullen. What was the attraction for you?

Mike Fitzharris: My first visit to the Mediterranean region was in 1968. From that time, I had a strong desire to live in a climate with many hours of sunshine and almost constant blue skies. I like looking at the colours against that blue. In the 1970s and ’80s, I spent many summers on the Greek islands and this reinforced my affection for the Mediterranean.

After exploring the Canary Islands in search of a home in the sun, I settled on Andalucía because of the ease of access. Eventually, I sourced a place on an elevated site with panoramic views over the landscape to the Mediterranean and the African coast. Early spring sees Andalucía carpeted with wildflowers, lupin and poppy. I guess you could say that I have ended up in an area that contains elements of many of the places where I have formerly lived.

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Bright wings

Experimentation is very much a part of Linda Plunkett’s process and her new series seems something of a departure for her, but Stephanie McBride finds her approach is firmly rooted in her engagement with the natural landscape

LINDA PLUNKETT Untitled # 2020 pigment print on Gampi paper with gold leaf 15 x 10cm

Irish artist Linda Plunkett cites the pioneering work of the Pictorialists as an influence in her practice and in her concern to capture the natural world in its serene moments. Rather than sweeping landscapes, her images favour the smaller details – dappled water, gaunt trees, birds in flight – ‘to invite the viewer to feel what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the deep-down things’.

In particular, she says, Edward Steichen’s The Pond – Moonlight (1904), a gum bichromate print over platinum, ‘was one of the first photographs that made a lasting impression on me’. Steichen’s approach to his subject and his experimental applications in completing his print were a mark of the Pictorialist movement, which flourished from around 1885 until 1915. With Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz among its driving forces, it claimed an artistic legitimacy for photography and brought about its radical rethink as an art form. Their approach and practice stressed formal aesthetics over photography-as-documentation or the medium’s more mechanical aspects. Their experimentation and concern for composition, colour, tone and layering – to go beyond merely recording reality – often resulted in images with a dreamlike, painterly quality.

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De Lacy’s Citadel

Roger Stalley traces the fractured history of Carlingford Castle in Co Louth, accessible to the public again following a ‘bold and unashamedly contemporary’ intervention by Howley Hayes Architects

Almost two centuries have elapsed since one of the first editions of the Dublin Penny Journal implored its readers to visit Carlingford. Having extolled the beauties of the bay, the author singled out the imposing ruins of the castle, squeezed between the mountains and the sea, ‘moored’, as the author put it, ‘on a rifted rock’. This was an elegant way of describing the castle’s dramatic setting, perched on a cliff above the waters of Carlingford Lough looking beyond to the mountains of Mourne.

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Adam’s 22 March

Harry Clarke (1889-1931) Bluebeard’s Last Wife stained glass panel 28 x 14.5cm

A stained-glass work by Harry Clarke is an extreme rarity at auction. He only made a few pieces of domestic scale so appearances of his works at auction are generally confined to drawings and watercolours. There are some of his works in national collections. However, most of his stained glass art in Ireland is in churches around the country. You’ll find examples in Cloughjordan, Carrickmacross, Kilrush and Castletownshend, to name but a few. Adam’s has an exquisite panel by the artist at its March auction; Bluebeard’s Last Wife is far removed from the religious themes we associate with much of Clarke’s work. It was created for the Arts and Crafts Society of Ireland exhibition in 1921 and inspired by the French folktales of Charles Perrault. The Bluebeard story was fashionable then with an opera by Bartók (La Barbe Bleue) and various adaptations by the Ballet Russes. The panel shows Bluebeard’s bride walking over a bridge towards a potentially gory death. Bluebeard awaits her with his sword at the ready.

Those who are familiar with the story know that the old brute was thwarted by this last bride, so there’s a happy ending. Clarke’s life, sadly, had no such conclusion. He died prematurely in 1931 of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one. He was returning from a visit to Switzerland where he was seeking respite and died in the city of Chur. A confusion about the maintenance of his grave led to him being disinterred and buried in a common grave fifteen years later. Bluebeard’s Last Wife is housed in a five-sided mahogany and walnut cabinet that is a work of art in itself and was made by master cabinet-maker James Hicks of Dublin. The panel has been widely exhibited internationally, including in the artist’s 1979 retrospective and, most recently, in Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art exhibition ‘The Arts and Crafts Movement: Making it Irish’ in 2016. This unique work is guiding €80,000 to €120,000.


Whyte’s 24 March

J P Dunleavy (1926-2017) Brendan Behan monotype with pencil and ink 30 x 23cm

The interest of literary types will be piqued by a curious work at Whyte’s March auction. It’s a monotype (with pencil and ink) portrait of Brendan Behan by J P Donleavy; a very minimal but instantly recognisable depiction, with the Behan nose the telling feature. This is not Donleavy’s only artistic rendition of Behan. He featured in The Ginger Man as the flimsily disguised character Barney Berry. Donleavy and Behan knew each other socially in the hard-drinking 1950s. While Donleavy drank sparingly and took notes, Behan revelled in the drunken carnival.

Donleavy was in some ways an accidental writer. His first love was art and he had a number of exhibitions in Dublin before The Ginger Man was published. When he tried to show outside Ireland’s stagnant art market in the early 1950s, he was rebuffed. The Redfern Gallery in London rejected him and he determined that he would show the world. He wrote: ‘I would write a book that would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world.’ He hit the jackpot with The Ginger Man but never emulated its success. He was no great lover of Ireland, despite living here for most of his life. In his 1994 autobiography, he referred to the ‘agricultural, paupered, myth drugged greenery that is Ireland’. And in the 1992 documentary, J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland in all her Sins and Graces, he described Ireland as ‘a shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic’. Yet we can forgive him all his foibles and later failings for the gift of The Ginger Man – a novel that came along in the mid-1950s when fun was forbidden and the Church ruled the land. It plunged us headlong into a world where responsibilities are discarded in the headlong pursuit of drink and sex. It championed freedom of expression in a censorious era and it made us laugh.

After his writing career had petered out, Donleavy continued to paint and was showing at the Molesworth Gallery in Dublin as recently as 2017. This monotype with its rich literary associations has a modest guide price of €1,500 to €2,000.


Dublin Moving East 1708-1844: How The City Took Over The Sea

Dublin Moving East
1708-1844: How The City Took Over The Sea

Michael Branagan
Wordwell Press, 2020
pp 320 fully illustrated h/b
€35.00 ISBN: 978-1-91649-226-4
Reviewed by Arnold Horner

As its title implies, Dublin Moving East 1708-1844: How the City took over the Sea focuses on the expansion of the city during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A primary theme is the reclamation activities of the Ballast Board following its establishment in 1708. Over many decades, the board was responsible for the regulation and scouring of the River Liffey by the building of the great south wall and later by making further quay walls on the north side and, in the early 19th century, the building of the Bull Wall. The board was also responsible for the building of the Poolbeg lighthouse (1768), a familiar and welcome sight for seafarers.

Michael Branagan enthusiastically describes the immediate effects of the walling of the Liffey, including the creation of the North and South Lotts and other areas of new land taken in from the sea. He provides accounts of the building of the Grand Canal docks and the walling in of the once turbulent and dangerous River Dodder, and he describes the building of the Dublin section of the Royal Canal at some length. His discussion extends to the construction of the harbours at Howth and Dunleary (Kingstown) in the early 19th century, and also takes in the building of the early railways to Kingstown and Drogheda. Yet other chapters explore churches, schools and hospitals on the north side of the Liffey and – a south-side activity – the early gas industry.

A particular feature of this interesting book is the diverse range of stimulating, highly informative illustrations. Some come from the fascinating collection of around 1,000 architectural drawings and maps compiled for the Wide Streets Commissioners. Now well catalogued and conserved in a commendable and important initiative, most of these images can be viewed online at the Dublin City Library and Archive website. Other illustrations used in this book are taken from the National Archives of Ireland and from the prints and drawings collections of the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Library of Ireland.

Many of the illustrations are quite vaguely referenced. However, in terms of actual imagery, the best are potent proof of the adage that a single image can convey more than a thousand words. Their appearance is a reminder that their source repositories have so much to offer about the past.

The changes described in this book were to be followed by the building of the Alexandra Basin in the 1870s and by further land reclamations for the port during the 20th century. More recently, much of the older dockland area has been abandoned and redeveloped, initially under the aegis of a dedicated development authority. Further changes in the near future will include large-scale development in the Pigeon House-Poolbeg area. Michael Branagan helps us appreciate that the eastward extension of Dublin is a process with a long, ongoing history.

Arnold Horner lectured in Geography at University College Dublin. He has written widely on aspects of Ireland’s mapping history.


Around the Island

ELINOR WILTSHIRE (1918-2017) Children and adults on steps heading for a swim, Martello tower, Seapoint, Co Dublin 1964.


David Davison looks at the photographs in the last chapter of the National Library of Ireland’s recent digitisation project

Children clambering among the boughs of a blossom tree in St Stephen’s Green in 1964 is one of a series of photographs of local Dublin life that concludes an ambitious project initiated by the National Library of Ireland in 2007. The concept being, the digitisation of a selection of images representing life in all thirty-two counties from the earliest days of photography to the late 20th century.

The National Library holds more than five million photographs, from which 60,000 have now been digitised, catalogued and made available online. The fact that it has taken fourteen years to complete the project is an indication of the enormity of the task involved in selecting the best examples. Sorting through boxes of large, fragile glass plates is time consuming, as is achieving a balance between scenery, buildings and the life of people in town and country. That Dublin is the last county in the series is indicative of an even-handed approach to the country as a whole. The library has also produced short video introductions to each county giving a flavour of what is to be found.

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Elevated survival

Patrick Bowe unearths how medieval monks fished, foraged and cultivated one of Ireland’s earliest known kitchen gardens on the cliffs of the windswept island of Skellig Michael

Among the earliest remains of gardens in Ireland are those that were attached to the monastery of Skellig Michael until the early 12th century. Although foraging for wild food was a preoccupation during that period, written evidence of the cultivation of food plants in what might be termed ‘kitchen gardens’ survives and much archaeological information has come to light about the monks’ gardening activities and their diet.

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