A WEEK ago, there was an outcry over unwanted portraits being hung in public galleries.
Now, however, paintings by two renowned Irish artists have been controversially taken out of the National Gallery to be put up for auction in Britain.
There are fears the works – one by Paul Henry, Ireland’s foremost landscape painter, and one by portrait artist Sir William Orpen – will be snapped up by foreign buyers and lost to the nation forever.
A second Orpen piece that hangs in the main foyer of the National Concert Hall – where it has been for three years – is also going under the hammer.
Author Ulick O’Connor last night called on the Government to get involved in saving the Orpen paintings for the nation.
Until recently, both paintings had been on loan to the gallery from the owners.
Mr O’Connor described the impending sale of the Orpen paintings in London as ‘deplorable’.
The National Gallery refused to say if it has been offered the chance to buy Henry’s A Connemara Village and Orpen’s 1913 portrait of poet Oliver St John Gogarty’s son, Noll.
The gallery also refused to say whether it made an offer for the paintings when they were withdrawn or if it will even bid for them when they come up for auction.
Noll’s estimate price is between €200,000 and €300,000, although it could fetch as much as €600,000 because prices achieved at auction are often considerably higher than presale estimates.
Noll’s father commissioned the portrait after the then six-year-old had recovered from an appendicitis operation.
The picture depicts Noll standing on the dunes at Portmarnock strand near Howth Head, where the Orpens holidayed between 1909 and 1914.
Noll, who had been a senior High Court barrister, died of Alzheimer’s in 1999.
A close family friend of Noll’s is selling the painting to help her children pay off their mortgages.
Elizabeth Kelly, who cared for Noll in his last years, grew up with the Gogarty family through her parents’ association with Noll’s sister, Brenda.
Mrs Kelly said last night: ‘I’ll be sorry to see it go because it’s a lovely painting.
I don’t need the money, and won’t be making a penny if it sells. The proceeds are for my four children.
‘I was stunned when Noll left it to me and our family have thoroughly enjoyed having it.
And if it doesn’t sell for a reasonable price, it wouldn’t bother me to take it back.
But I so hope it goes to a buyer in Ireland because it is such an iconic work of Irish art.’
The other Henry painting is expected to fetch about €300,000 in May at Sotheby’s in London, while the second Orpen, a portrait of celebrated Irish tenor Count John McCormack, is to be sold at Christie’s the same month for about €650,000.
Mr O’Connor, who wrote an acclaimed biography on Gogarty and raised the issue of the upcoming auctions at an Arts Club dinner in his honour last night, said: ‘I am astonished that anybody has allowed the Noll and the McCormack paintings be put up for auction abroad.
‘They are national treasures and should be treated that way instead of being put at risk in this way.’
He added: ‘The Noll is not only by one of the world’s finest portrait artists but it is also a beautiful portrait of the son of one of this country’s finest poets.
‘The history around this painting is so woven into the fabric of Ireland’s culture in the early 19th century that I see it as nothing short of criminal that this painting be lost to the nation.’
Leading barrister and poet John O’Donnell, a former colleague of Noll, said: ‘The painting is as good as artefact material in historical terms.
‘It is very much a part of our Irish heritage.
It will be such a shame to see it leave the country.’ The seller of the Henry painting is unknown.
The work is regarded as the quintessential oil painting of a traditional west of Ireland landscape.
It is known to have belonged to the same family, passing from generation to generation of the same Irish family that bought it in a Dublin gallery in 1940.
It was first exhibited at the National Gallery in early 2003. Prices are drastically down in the art world generally but there is said to still be a brisk demand for quality Irish material.
Auction house Adam’s, for example, sold seven out of 10 works it auctioned on Tuesday.