Irish Vernacular Part II
He mounts his tall trap, gives his charger the reins,
And gallops away through the green country lanes,
The Board pays the posting – the balance remains –
With William, the Local Inspector of Drains.
He finds out the holding and what it contains,
Then maps out his system in furlongs and chains
And points out positions for ‘miners’ and ‘mains’ –
Such wisdom has William, the Local Inspector of Drains.
He plunges through marshes long haunted by cranes,
Unmindful of how dark bog-water stains;
Traducers assert that this ardour he feigns,
They little know William, Inspector of Drains!
Extract from Song of William, Inspector of Drains by Percy French (1854-1920)
William Percy French – songwriter, poet and painter – was also a civil engineer. Typically, he made light of this. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1881, describing himself as ‘admirably unfitted for any profession whatsoever’, but found employment with the Board of Works in County Cavan as surveyor or inspector of drains. This was part of a large publically-funded civil engineering project. In 1861, the Shan
non had flooded with catastrophic effect on the farmland around it. The drainage works prevented this happening again but, in doing so, they changed the landscape forever. ‘People misunderstand his role,’ says Philip Sheppard. ‘French would have been involved in deciding where the drains would go, supervising their construction, and managing gangs of labourers. It gave him an intimate connection with the people and the land that ultimately informed his painting and his song writing.’
French’s finest watercolours come from the five years he spent in County Cavan. They are simple unassuming landscapes, atmospheric and with a strong sense of place. Now, they’re a window back in time, a snapshot of that part of Ireland before drainage permanently altered the nature of the landscape and its biodiversity. Their popularity at auction is well documented, but French remains under-represented in State collections. Possibly his reputation as a writer of humorous songs and subsequent career as an entertainer has stood in the way of his appreciation as artist and chronicler of the changing Irish landscape. Now, something special has come on the market.
A cupboard with panels painted by French (Lot 220: est. €2,000 to €3,000) is going under the hammer at Sheppard’s Irish Vernacular sale on 28 March. It originally came from 16 Farnham Street in Cavan town, where he lived during his time with the Board of Works. It’s easy to imagine the artist, with not much to do in the evenings, getting creative with the furniture. ‘In that particular house they also discovered his paintings under the wallpaper,’ Sheppard explains. The cupboard (180 x 127 x 48 cm) is decorated in oils. Each of its four front panels shows a different landscape. The top left panel is a seascape with a cliff edge in the foreground; top right is a view of a harbour pier with the sea coming in; bottom right is a beech tree; and bottom left is rock with lichen and ferns. Years of smoke and grime have dimmed the panels, which would shine more brightly if professionally restored. The sides of the cupboard are painted with bulrushes, locally called ‘black paddies.’ These edible plants, as Sheppard explains, are also known as ‘the asparagus of the Cossacks’. ‘Apparently they have the same nutritional value as rice,’ he says.
The sale also includes a watercolour painting by French, Turf Stack in the West of Ireland (Lot 221: est. €3,000 to €5,000), a haunting hazy view of the bog land with a luminous cloudy sky, and a framed vintage photograph of the artist (Lot 219: est. €200 to €300).
The Sir John Boorman Collection
‘As I step out of the conservatory facing North, supported by my pusher, the first that
catches my eye is the dying Sycamore which escapes death every year by producing a
healthy crop of leaves, but it looks so decrepit that surely it can’t pull that trick yet again.’
– Extract from Nature Diary (2020) by John Boorman
Imagine working at John Boorman’s writing desk. Who knows what scripts once rested on its scuffed leather top? Maybe the legendary film director read the script for Excalibur (1981), sitting at this very desk, in amid the leafy peacefulness of his County Wicklow home. But there’s no way of knowing. That desk is keeping its secrets. Maybe some of his genius will rub off on its new owner. In physical terms, it’s a George III mahogany writing desk (80 cm high; 147 cm wide; 107 cm deep) with three drawers on either side. The desk is in what’s known as ‘country house condition’. This translates as loved and lived-in but by no means perfect. It’s for sale (Lot 853: est. €500 to €800) as part of Sheppard’s 3-day sale – Sir John Boorman, CBE & Other Important Clients from Tuesday 28 February to Thursday 2 March. In 2022, Boorman left the elegant Georgian rectory – The Glebe, Annamoe – where he’d lived for more than fifty years. Now aged 90, he’s moved to England to be closer to the family. ‘We met briefly at the end of last summer when we went to catalogue the things he wanted to sell,’ says Philip Sheppard. ‘I remember the long driveway that follows the Annamoe River, which flows past the house. It was like being transported to another world. He was there, with all his things around him, in a big lump of a beautiful Regency House surrounded by extraordinary trees.’
Portrait picture of Sir John BoormanMany of the trees were planted in the early 1900s when Rev Samuel Synge — brother of the playwright JM Synge — who lived at The Glebe. Boorman wrote about them in his Nature Diary, written in his eighty-eighth year. ‘There’s a literary DNA in that house!’ Sheppard says. He describes the house itself as warm and homely. ‘It was a proper country house. A dogs-on-the-sofa sort of country house. We met John Boorman and then we were taken down to the kitchen for homemade apple tart and tea,’ The kitchen contained another low key gem: a nineteenth-century pine dresser (Lot 893: est. €300 to €500). At more than 2 metres high, it would need a spacious kitchen.
Rather than film memorabilia, the sale includes items that Boorman lived with and used, any one of which would be an excellent talking point for film buffs. The most direct connection is a pen-and-ink portrait of Boorman by Anthony Palliser (Lot 345: est. €300 to €500) dated 2009. The rest is mostly furniture. Some is elegant: a nineteenth-century giltwood mirror (Lot 13: est. €1,200 to €1,800); a Venetian chandelier with coloured glass ball pendants hanging from multiple arms (Lot 154: est. €1,000 to €1,500); and a Cork Regency mahogany side table (Lot 473: est. €2,000 to €5,000). Fine pieces, all of them, and made richer by their association. Similarly, a Donegal Design carpet (380 x 280 cm) showing a tree of life on a many- coloured background with Celtic scroll decoration (Lot 327: est. €2,000 to €3,000).
All of the above were made for, and would look best in, a big house but the final day of the sale includes some less hefty items: an eighteenth century Irish games table made in red walnut with a top that opens to reveal an interior lined with baize (Lot 1221: est. €1,500 to €2,500); a pair of George III mahogany and inlaid tea tables (Lot 1224: est. €800 to €1,200); and a very fancy pair of eighteenth-century carved giltwood wall brackets (Lot 1315: est. €200 to €300).