by Robert O’Byrne
The Irish Times, May 17, 1996
It may not have quite the same overt romanticism as an Onassis diamond, but the tale of love attached to one of Jack Yeats’s paintings helped ensure a new world record of £804,500 for the Irish artist yesterday afternoon at Sotheby’s in London.
It was one of a collection of paintings by Irish artists to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s yesterday.
Dating from 1929, the Yeats painting, A Farewell to Mayo, depicts the poignant spectacle of an emigrant taking a final look at his homeland from the back of a horsecart. However, it’s not so much the picture’s sentiment which caught the imagination of prospective buyers as the sentimental history of a former owner, English actress Vivien Leigh.
Thirteen years after being painted, A Farewell to Mayo was included in a temporary show at London’s National Gallery organised by its director, Sir Kenneth Clark. At the time, Sir Kenneth regularly visited Ms Leigh in her dressing room at the nearby Haymarket Theatre.
She was given a private viewing of the National Gallery exhibition and, seemingly, decided that A Farewell was reminiscent of certain scenes in Gone With the Wind, for which she had won an Oscar three years earlier. So great was her enthusiasm that in January 1942 her husband, Laurence Olivier, bought the painting as a gift for her. The actress could claim more substantial links with this country than just playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Her mother’s family had Irish blood and childhood holidays were spent in Connemara.
Personal details such as these rarely come to be associated with a painting, which is why A Farewell to Mayo, which had an estimate of £150,000-£250,000, held particular interest at yesterday’s auction.
But as last week’s Irish art sale at rival auction house, Christie’s, demonstrated, the market for Jack B. Yeats paintings appears to be steadily improving. On that occasion, one of the artist’s works called A Walkover, with an estimated price of just £30,000, eventually made £205,000.
And yesterday, even before A Farewell set new records for Yeats, the previous top price of £505,000 achieved by the this artist in 1994 had already been surpassed by another picture in the Sotheby’s sale.
Art dealer Theo Waddington, whose late father Victor had been Yeats’s agent, yesterday paid £661,500 for a late work, Leaving The Raft. The name of the purchaser of A Farewell to Mayo was not, however, being released yesterday. Sotheby’s would only say that it had been bought over the telephone by an American collector.