A NECKLACE discovered in an English auction house belonged to the mystery English heiress who funded the establishment of the Abbey Theatre. Dreweatt’s auctioneers in Donnington Priory, Berkshire said finding the jewel during an auction valuation day was “an Antiques Roadshow moment” which left its jewellery valuer “bowled over”.
The “extraordinary early 20th century opal dragon pendant and necklace” belonged to Anne Horniman – the heiress to a tea fortune who was the original patron of Ireland’s National Theatre. She was the only daughter of the renowned tea trader Frederick Horniman, who at the turn of the last century owned the biggest tea company in the world.
Known as the “lonely rich girl”, with an interest in theatre, she met the poet WB Yeats and the playwright George Bernard Shaw in London and acquired an interest in Irish culture. In 1903 she came to Ireland to encourage the literary revival.
She used some of her inherited fortune to buy property on Lower Abbey Street, Dublin, which enabled Yeats and Lady Gregory to establish the Abbey Theatre which opened on December 27th, 1904 and which eventually became the National Theatre of Ireland.
She continued to fund the Abbey – including paying the actors’ wages – until 1910 when she switched her patronage to a theatre in Manchester.
Vanessa Clewes Salmon, a spokeswoman for the auctioneers, said Anne Horniman (1860-1937) was “quite a gal” who was “a flamboyant character at a time when genteel ladies tended to take a back seat; she not only played a pivotal role in the development of the theatre and smoked in public, but she also cycled over the Alps twice”. She also became a theatre patron in Manchester.
After the old Abbey Theatre burnt down in 1951, a new theatre was built which opened in 1966. But the foundation stone was inscribed only with the names of Yeats and Lady Gregory. An Irish Times report claimed that Anne Horniman’s name was not included at the insistence of the Abbey’s then managing director, Ernest Blythe, because she “was an Englishwoman”. A Horniman’s tea caddy once adorned the bar of the Abbey Theatre but also apparently vanished.
Old portrait photographs show Anne Horniman wearing her “signature” opal dragon necklace which was commissioned from a master jeweller working in the arts and crafts style. The piece, brought to the auctioneers for valuation by a descendant, is described as “in the shape of a rampant dragon” – the silver body inlaid with over 300 opals simulating scales and with garnet and green enamel eyes. It will be sold by Dreweatts in a jewellery auction next Wednesday at Donnington Priory, and has a pre-sale estimate of £3,000–£5,000 (€3,610-€6,000).