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Yeats’s wild swimmers on sale for €40-60,000 at Wh...

Those hardy Irish souls who swim in the sea – regardless of weather – will surely identify with the figures in a Jack B Yeats painting Old Men Bathing which is to be auctioned by Whyte’s in Dublin on February 28th.

It shows two men wading out into the Atlantic – probably off the coast of Sligo – for an early morning swim. The figure on the right is about to submerge himself in the water, the other gazes out beyond the viewer as if surveying the sea and the rising sun.

The title of the painting may puzzle contemporary viewers as the men don’t appear to be especially elderly but when Yeats made this painting in the early 1920s the average life expectancy for an Irish man was approximately 54 years.

In a catalogue essay, the Yeats expert Dr Róisín Kennedy notes the swimmers’ “courage to brave the Atlantic swell” but that the painting also provides “a strong sense of the enjoyment and pleasure that sea bathing in such spectacular surroundings provides for these figures and for the viewers of the painting”.

Yeats tried to exhibit the painting at the Royal Academy in London in 1923 but it was rejected. The following year it was shown at his one-man show ‘Paintings of Life in the West of Ireland’ in London and Dublin and later sold by the dealer Victor Waddington.

It has been owned privately ever since and last changed hands, 17 years ago, for approximately €33,000. Old Men Bathing is now back on the market – as Lot 31 – with an estimate of €40-60,000 – a modest increase in value.

Also rising in value is Sean Keating whose The Aran Island Turf Boat, Lot 22, is estimated at €50-70,000. It last changed hands in 1995 for approximately €20,000.

According to Dr Éimear O’Connor (author of Seán Keating – Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation) his “paintings of the Aran Island people were in constant demand throughout his working life.


By the time he came to paint The Aran Island Turf Boat the artist had accumulated a large collection of sketches made while on the islands, many of which he annotated with his observations about the weather conditions; the prevailing winds, the height of the sun in the sky and the mood of the sea. A keen photographer, he also amassed a trove of photographs of the Aran Island people. He was fascinated by their traditions, their dress, and their attitude to life”.

As is frequently the case, the highest estimate in the sale is for a Paul Henry – Lot 30, Landscape, West of Ireland, an oil-on-board measuring 15 by 22 inches, dating from around 1915-1918 and estimated at €80-120,000.


It’s a classic Paul Henry – thatched, white-washed cottages, stacks of turf etc and the location is believed to be Achill. This is one of many similar paintings by the artist and this one was a wedding present to a family in Co Tyrone in the 1940s but was later sold and up in the Taylor Gallery in Belfast where it was acquired by the vendor.

Among the more affordable lots is Lot 118, Cove, a watercolour, Co Cork by Richard Brydges Beechey dated 1844 inscribed on the reverse : “Cove/As you approach from the Cork Road – (House on the left) Richard B. Beechey. 1843” estimated at €2,000-3,000.

‘Cove’ was renamed Queenstown in honour of Queen Victoria in 1849 and then renamed Cobh in 1920. The artist was a captain and later admiral of the Royal Navy, who was also an accomplished painter on marine subjects and a regular exhibitor at the RHA Dublin where he was made an Honorary Member in 1868. After his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1864 he settled in Monkstown, and later in Pembroke Road, Dublin.

Lot 122, Watermill and Cattle By a River, a gouache painting by the 19th century Belfast-born artist Andrew Nicholl, whose watercolours of Ceylon recently sold at Bonhams in London, is estimated at €600-800.

While the title of the auction is ‘Irish and International Art’ – most of the lots are actually by Irish artists including among others Daniel O’Neill, Sir John Lavery, Leo Whelan, William Conor, Aloysius C. O’Kelly, Martin Gale, Cecil Maguire and Tony O’Malley.

But among the international lots there’s an intriguing and rare appearance of modern Iraqi art in the sale. Lot 48, Baghdad Street Scene, is by Hafidh Al Droubi and depicts the city in 1988 before the destruction wrought by the Gulf War (and subsequent conflicts) that began in 1990. The oil-on-canvas, measuring 36 by 19 inches, is estimated at €5,000-7,000.


Hafidh Al Droubi was born in Baghdad in 1914 and died in 1991. He is considered to have been one of Iraq’s most influential artists and many of his paintings feature his native city. His particular style incorporated elements of Impressionism and Cubism over the duration of his career.

Al Droubi was selected by the Iraqi ministry of education to study abroad and went to Rome and later London to study art. Later, back in Iraq, Al Droubi became Dean of the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.

In 2010, in London, the artist’s family hosted a commemorative exhibition of his work. Hafidh Al Droubi’s paintings occasionally turn up at auction overseas. The most recent was in a Christie’s auction in Dubai last year where an untitled painting (also a city scene) made $32,250 – comfortably in excess of the top estimate of $20,000.

So how did this painting end up in Ireland?

Whyte’s said it was a “gift from the artist’s widow to the present [unnamed] owner”.

Whyte’s Irish and international art auction, RDS, Monday February 26th. see

Source: Michael Parsons