THOUGH THE BORING brains of tawdry metropolitan Londoners are all too quick at relegating Dublin to the provincial periphery of the mind, the Irish capital is a perpetual treasure trove for the old-fashioned and right-minded. A number of items of interests have recently been sold at the auction houses of the fair city, including two ceremonial uniforms (above) of that famous Dubliner, Sir Edward Carson QC. Carson was the lawyer and statesmen who passionately, but without bigotry, opposed the cause of Irish home rule. He was the defending barrister in the Archer-Shee case and led the Marquess of Queensberry’s team in Oscar Wilde’s doomed libel action. Carson and Wilde had been at Trinity together (where — little known fact! — Carson was a keen hurler), and the famous wit quipped of Carson “I trust he will conduct his cross-examination with all the added bitterness of an old friend.”
Having a fine mind for the law and being politically active meant that Carson moved through several layers of British government, holding numerous offices and positions. He was a Privy Counsellor twice over (of both Ireland and the United Kingdom), a Queen’s Counsel, served in the House of Commons as leader of the Irish Unionists, and held portfolios in the British Cabinet. The two ceremonial uniforms auctioned at Whyte’s of Molesworth Street are from his appointment as Solicitor General for England & Wales in 1900. (He had been Solicitor-General for Ireland in 1892, and was later Attorney General for England & Wales, in which position he was succeeded by the F.E. Smith of Chesterton’s famous poem).
The two black wool morning coats feature gold bullion trimming and buttons, and are sold with a pair of trousers with gold filigree stripe matching the lesser uniform, and knee breeches & silk stockings for the greater uniform. The vellum appointment as Solicitor General was also included, in a red leather box with a gilt impression of the royal arms. Whyte’s estimated a sale of €50,000-€70,000, but the lot’s realised price was €42,000.
The Ulster-born painter Robert Hunter was one of the most prolific portraitist of late eighteenth-century Dublin, arguably the city’s (and country’s) golden age. Among his many works are these portraits of the three brothers King. Sir Robert King, 4th Baronet (left) was notorious as “a vile young rake” with vast estates in Roscommon, whose only interests were drinking, wenching, and spending. He once seduced the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tenant (who tried to force a marriage at pistol-point), fought in at least one duel, lived with his mistress in Dublin, was a Member of the Irish Parliament (before being made 1st Baron Kingsborough), and was Grand Master of the Irish Freemasons.
Hunter depicts the rake at three-quarter length, standing in a red coat with an embroidered waistcoat and sword, holding a tricorn hat. His brother Edward (5th Baronet after Robert’s death in 1755, made Baron 1764, Viscount 1766, and Earl 1768) is depicted with dog by his side and gun in hand. The third brother, Henry King (later the Rt. Hon. Colonel Henry King MP), Hunter shows in a red velvet coat and yellow waistcoat, again with a sporting dog by his side. All three portraits are 48 inches by 38½ inches in giltwood rococo frames from the period. Sir Robert King sold at James Adam & Co., St. Stephen’s Green, for €55,000, Sir Edward for €50,000, and Henry King for €38,000.
Garret Morphy (c. 1655-1715) is probably best known for his portrait of St. Oliver Plunkett, the most familiar image of that saint who is a Cusack kinsman and whose relics are enshrined at Downside Abbey in Somerset. Little is known about Morphy’s early training, but he moved back and forth between London and Dublin from the 1670s until settling permanently in the Irish capital in the mid-1690s. A Catholic himself, he painted portraits for many of the dwindling numbers of Catholic aristocracy and gentry whose final death knell was sounded by the Williamite victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
This portrait, depicting a black-clad woman holding a rosary, is attributed to Morphy and has traditionally been known to the King family as “Margaret O’Cahan” (oil on canvas, 69 in. x 35 in.). The fontage cap worn by the subject was widespread in 17th-century France, notably at the exiled court of James II, and survived in fashion no later than 1710. Prof. Anne Crookshank (of Trinity College Dublin) doubts it is actually a Morphy, citing its continental canvas, but Morphy probably did travel to France. As the catalogue entry notes, “Prof. Crookshank feels that this portrait is quite possibly of Florence O’Cahan, Margaret’s mother, and as such is a rare depiction of a member of the old Irish aristocracy in exile.”
Whether Florence or Margaret, the rather haunting and sad portrait was sold for €27,000 at Adam & Co’s October auction at Slane Castle.
The “Green Ensign” never had any official sanction as the banner of Irish shipping, but evidence suggests it was used by some maritime merchants of the Emerald Isle from the seventeenth into the nineteenth centuries. In 1872, the Viceroy of Ireland, in reply to an Admiralty inquiry, clarified the use of the Green Ensign as incorrect, and attached a supportive essay by Sir J. Barnard-Burke, Ulster King of Arms (Ireland’s heraldic chief) expounding upon the tradition of blue as Ireland’s national colour. The gold-harp-on-blue remains in the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland and also forms the Presidential Standard of the Republic of Ireland.
This nineteenth-century Green Ensign (heavy cotton, 49 in. x 104 in.) is a rare surviving example of the flag, many of which were confiscated and destroyed by customs and Admiralty officials. Estimated to fetch no more than €500, competing vexillolophiles pushed the final sale price to €800 at Whyte’s in November.