Sotheby’s have a very exciting sale coming up on 21 November: Irish Art from the Collection of Brian P Burns. It’s rare to see so many important paintings by Irish artists on offer at the same auction.
Brian P Burns, whose family hail from Sneem in Co Kerry originally, is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and a prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist. About forty years ago he embarked on a mission to demonstrate to the world that ‘the Irish could be just as brilliant in the visual arts as they have been in music and literature’. To that end, he and his wife Eileen put together a collection of over 200 paintings which encompassed some of the best-quality works by our best-known artists. He was not afraid, occasionally, to look beyond the obvious figures of Jack B Yeats, Lavery and O’Conor to more obscure figures such as Maria Spilsbury, F J Davis and James Hore. Burns spread the word about Irish art by making loans from his collection to exhibitions in the USA and elsewhere. One hundred of these works will go on auction at Sotheby’s.
In terms of highlights, it’s hard to know where to start we are so spoiled for quality. Misty Morning by Jack B Yeats might be a good place. When Brian Fallon reviewed the collection in 1996 he spoke of it containing a few ‘quite undisputed masterpieces’. This is surely one of them. A lone figure stands by the shore as a boat emerges from the fog. It’s a beautifully composed image in itself but ripe for plunder by those who seek metaphorical content.
When Brian Fallon reviewed the collection in 1996 he spoke of it containing a few ‘quite undisputed masterpieces’
There’s also an unusual Roderic O’Conor, Romeo and Juliet (Fig 7) painted from the imagination rather than from observation as was his wont. The rich reds and yellows suggest the heat of the young lovers passion. Perhaps the artist was in love in 1910, the year he painted it, or perhaps as the catalogue notes suggest, he had recently viewed Munch’s The Kiss. There are also a couple of strong Laverys. One is the attractive The Beach, Evening, Tangier, and the other is a depiction of Armistice Day hectic with detail. Not many art lovers are familiar with F J Davis I suspect. His painting The State Ballroom (St Patrick’s Hall), Dublin Castle (Fig 8) depicts the 19th-century ruling classes disporting themselves in all their finery while the Irish Famine builds up momentum across the country. While it’s hardly a masterpiece, this painting is a fascinating depiction of the period. Those in charge of acquisitions at the NGI should be paying close attention to this auction. In addition to the quality of much of the work, there are surely gaps in our national collection that could be filled. While the NGI has Patrick Tuohy’s portrait of Beatrice Glenavy it lacks a work by the woman herself. Vain Suit would be a likely candidate to fill this gap (Fig 6). George Campbell’s Jack B Yeats, an Impression could fill a dual purpose by complementing the gallery’s Yeats collection and acknowledging an artist who seems more feted in Spain than his home country. James Butler Brenan is another it should consider and possibly James Hore.