How should we define 'Modern British' art? Antique Trade Gazette’s recently published Mod Brit special acknowledged that definitions can be “fluid” but that the term “essentially covers 20th century British pictures and sculpture up until the 1970s… works that are stylistically free from traditional conventions...”.
Such a description is not inappropriate for Irish art of the mid-century, Dublin-based auctioneer Ian Whyte tells ATG, ahead of Whyte’s ‘Important Irish Art’ sale in Dublin on May 27. “There was a post-war art movement in Britain – and one in Ireland too,” he says.
Émigré artists arrive
The key distinction, Whyte explains, is that Ireland was neutral in the Second World War and yet that conflict was an artistic catalyst, an ill wind that blew émigré artists into Ireland from 1939, fleeing the Nazis in particular.
The somewhat insular Irish art scene was about to be transformed.
Of prime importance in this evolution, Whyte says, was the arrival of the White Stag Group, founded in London in 1935 by British artists Kenneth Hall (1913-46) and Basil Rakozci (1908-1979).
The pair relocated their group to Ireland in 1939, encouraging other oversees artists to follow, to eventually form the vanguard of modern artistic ideas in Ireland.
“Post-war Irish art was influenced by this group of émigré artists – English and French mostly," Whyte says. "They encouraged abstract and figurative Irish artists like Patrick Swift (1927-83), Patrick Scott (1921-2014) and Louis Le Brocquy (1916-2012), who flourished in the 1950s and 60s, opening their eyes to modern European painting.”
As for those Irish traditionalists, such as Sean Keating (1889-1977), “they hated the White Stag Group and their influence. Keating thought they were rubbish!”
The second influencer group of ‘Mod Irish’ artists emerged in the years immediately after the Second World War, Whyte says, when the so-called ‘Belfast Boys’ burst onto the scene.
George Campbell (1917-79), Dan O’Neill (1920-74) and a group of mainly self-taught artists, formed the 'Belfast Boys' and were all represented by the Victor Waddington Gallery until its closure in the late 1950s.
'Mod Irish' success
Whyte’s has chalked up recent successes with ‘Mod Irish’, selling two William Scott (1913-89) paintings for close to half a million euros each, one at auction in 2017 and the other by private treaty. “Though he was born in Scotland, Scott grew up in Fermanagh, had an Irish passport and so we claim him as ours,” says Whyte, with a smile.
Is there a discernible increase in ‘Mod Irish’ art coming to auction in Ireland? Yes, says Whyte, for the same reason as the surge in Mod Brit sales in the UK.
“The Irish 'baby boomers' – who bought art in the 60s and 70s when they were in their 20s and 30s – are downsizing and selling their art,” he says. Concerns that today’s younger buyers would reject that era’s abstract Irish art have proved unfounded. “It’s great! Young buyers have taken to pure abstract art like a duck to water,” Whyte concludes.
Below is our pick of five 20th century pieces including one contemporary work for sale on May 27. Whyte's charges 20% buyer's premium excluding VAT. The lots and the auction can also be viewed on thesaleroom.com.
1. Flowers in a vase by William John Leech
Flowers in a vase, still life by William John Leech (1881-1968) is estimated at €50,000-70,000 (£43,100-60,300). Paintings by Leech, regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest Impressionists, are popular with Irish buyers again, with auction estimates regularly exceeded in recent years.
This is a typical Leech composition, seen from a high viewpoint, the petal shapes becoming pink and red arabesque forms, not simply pretty flowers in a vase.
2. Potato Harvest by Lilian Lucy Davidson
Potato Harvest, an oil on canvas by Lilian Lucy Davidson (1893-1954) is estimated at €30,000-40,000 (£25,800-34,400).
Painted in 1931, this 30 x 40in (76.2cm x 101.6cm) oil on canvas is a more benign depiction of Irish peasant reliance on the potato for survival than Davidson's later work, Gorta (gaelic for 'hunger'), which hangs in a Connecticut, USA art gallery.
3. Nurses by Nevill Johnson
Nurses by Nevill Johnson (1911-99) estimated at €10,000-15,000 (£8,600-12,900). Johnson was born in England but moved to Ireland, first to Belfast in the 1930s, then Dublin in 1946 to join Victor Waddington’s Dublin gallery.
Surreal works by Johnson, such as Nurses, are his best but they are very rare. This oil on board measures 27in x 48in (68.6cm x 121.9cm).
4. Genesis by Colin Middleton
Genesis (1957) by Colin Middleton (1910-83) is an oil on canvas estimated at €30,000-40,000 (£43,200-57,600). This work measures 36in x 24in (91cm x 61cm) and is part of a defining series of expressionist figure paintings by Middleton, a Belfast-born surrealist.
5. Untitled by Diana Copperwhite
Untitled by Diana Copperwhite (b.1969) is estimated at €3,000-5,000 (£2,580-4,300). This oil on board, painted c.1996 measures 48in x 48in (122cm x 122cm) and is by one of Ireland’s leading contemporary artists.
Copperwhite's work has been exhibited in New York and Paris and this untitled piece is from her first solo exhibition in Temple Bar Galleries, Dublin, in 1996.