The highlight of Sotheby’s September sale is Louis le Brocquy’s Travelling Woman with Newspaper, which comes from the dispersal of the collection of Michael Smurfit. He bought the painting at Sotheby’s in 2000 for £1,050,000 – which is the highest price paid for a Le Brocquy by a considerable margin. The next highest price is half a million less. Guiding at £750,000 to £1,000,000, this painting was first shown at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in 1947. Its original title was The Last Tinker and this is inscribed on the reverse, along with Le Brocquy’s signature and the date (1947-48). That ‘48’ may seem confusing as it was exhibited in 1947, but apparently Le Brocquy took the work back after the IELA exhibition and reworked it. He clearly was not satisfied with the picture and decided to make changes prior to entering it in Twelve Contemporary British Painters (1948-49). This was the British Council touring exhibition where the painting was reputedly seen by Willem de Kooning at the Stedelijk Museum.
This work was painted during Le Brocquy’s ‘Tinker period’, which extended from 1945 to 1948. He painted works such as Tinkers in a Landscape (1945), Connemara Landscape (1945), Tinkers Twilight (1945), Sick Tinker Child (1946) and Tinkers Resting (1946) – the latter work hangs in Tate Britain. Critics differ on the source of his interest in Travellers. Some see it as relating to the 20th century interest in ‘primitives’, as also seen in Synge’s fascination with the natives of Connemara. Le Brocquy would have been aware of Synge’s notion of the bond between the Traveller and the artist – both alienated from normal society. Given the period in which the series were painted, Yvonne Scott’s comments also seem pertinent: ‘The Travellers series was carried out in the wake of the Second World War also, to some extent in sympathy with the plight of the gypsies who had suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.’
Le Brocquy himself asserted: ‘For me the Travelling People represented, dramatically perhaps, the human condition.’ The titles of many of the works in this series have been revised to spare the blushes of the retroactively sensitive. The work itself has a cubist feel and there are strong intimations of Picasso’s influence.
Another interesting work at Sotheby’s is John Kelly’s painting Castlehaven, a depiction of the harbour from near his house in Reen. Kelly, whose work is often surreal and fantastical, was inspired to try his hand at his local landscape by an encounter in the Merrion Hotel with a Paul Henry painting of a harbour that reminded him of Castlehaven. Kelly is an Australian artist with Irish connections and he has been living in west Cork for nearly twenty years. He is a major figure in contemporary Australian art and indeed internationally (his work hangs in the very prestigious Yale Center for British Art). He is best known internationally for his Cow in a Tree sculpture, which once graced the Champs-Élysées and established his reputation outside Australia.
Kelly was taken very seriously ill in his remote property two years ago and, only for the alacrity and efficiency of the West Cork Rapid Response (WCRR) team, he would have died. The proceeds from the sale of Castlehaven at this auction will go to that organisation – a group of volunteers who do sterling work all over west Cork.