The Ernie O’Malley Collection: a who’s who of Irish art
Ernie O’Malley was a proud Irishman whose private passion for art saw him forge personal relationships with major artists in America and Ireland. His extraordinary collection sold for €5.5 million on 25 November in Dublin
In the 1920s, while co-ordinating troops for the Irish Republican Army, Ernie O'Malley always kept a book with him featuring reproductions of famous artworks. In later life, he explained how he had ‘carried a volume of Blake, Dürer and della Francesca around during the hard years. I studied them in many a strange background of mountain or bog — [the book] became frayed… its surfaces stuck with rain and sweat.’
O’Malley didn’t let the small matter of 18 months of incarceration in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison restrict his love of art either. Captured after a clash with Free State soldiers in the Irish Civil War, he took full advantage of the prison library. ‘I tried to trace the development of Italian painting, starting with Giotto,’ he recalled.
This was a remarkable man who led a remarkable life, throughout which art featured substantially. On 25 November, the Dublin auction house Whyte’s, in association with Christie’s, sold the remarkable collection that O’Malley and his wife Helen assembled once his revolutionary days were over for €5.5 million.
It included a host of paintings and drawings by Jack B. Yeats, widely considered one of Ireland’s greatest ever artists. The sale, a who’s who of Irish art from the mid-20th century, also featured work by the likes of Evie Hone, Louis le Brocquy and Mainie Jellett, all of whose careers O’Malley supported.
View all the lots in the auction on 25 November
The second of 11 children, O’Malley was born in 1897 into a middle-class Catholic family in the western Irish town of Castlebar, in County Mayo. He won a scholarship to study medicine at University College Dublin in 1915, but gave up his studies after the Easter Rising the following year in order join the fight for an independent Ireland.
‘My soul lies with the arts,’ said O’Malley. ‘In them lies happiness’
O’Malley fought in the Irish Civil War and was sent to prison a second time. He was eventually released in July 1924 — more than a year after the Civil War had ended. He was 27 years old and vowed to ‘begin life over again’.
By the end of the decade O'Malley was across the Atlantic, travelling through Mexico and the United States. He paid his way partly by selling drawings he’d done of local landscapes. The town of Taos in New Mexico was among his favourite spots, boasting as it did a thriving art colony, which included figures such as the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams.
It was another photographer, Paul Strand, who gave O’Malley a list of contacts for his next stop: New York. It was where, in 1933, he met and fell in love with the sculptor and heiress Helen Hooker, whose sister had recently married John D. Rockefeller III.
Ernie would soon take Helen back to Europe with him, the couple marrying in 1935 and settling in Dublin. The following year, his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, was published to popular acclaim. By now, O’Malley had clearly decided which direction he wished his life to take. ‘My soul lies with the arts,’ he said. ‘In them lies happiness.’
One of the jobs he took was as a reviewer — later an editor — for the literary and cultural magazine The Bell. He also spent a great deal of time reconnecting with his homeland. O’Malley joined the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, for example, and when Strand visited from the US, the pair went on a long trip to archaeological sites and medieval monasteries nationwide.
Ernie and Helen soon began collecting art together. Initial purchases were from France, paintings by the likes of André Derain and Ismael Gonzalez de la Serna. However, they soon hit upon buying contemporary Irish art: the first acquisition being Currachs Fishing (Off Achill), above, a seascape set off the west coast by Maurice MacGonigal, an old comrade of Ernie’s.
In Dublin, O’Malley now got to know many other artists. They included the painter and stained-glass artist, Evie Hone, an exhibition of whose work he organised; and Mainie Jellett, whose abstract painting dedicated to Ireland, The Land Eire, above, he bought in 1943. After Jellett’s death a year later, O’Malley helped set up an art scholarship in her name.
The painter whose work he collected most keenly, though, was Jack B. Yeats. The pair had a mutual friend in the author Samuel Beckett, who claimed, ‘Yeats is with the great of our time, because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light’.
As one can tell from the other works in O’Malley’s collection, he embraced modernism. He particularly liked the art Yeats made after shifting to a speedily brushed, highly expressionistic style in the 1920s.
Yeats’s subject matter also appealed. Both men had a love of the Irish landscape, especially that in the rural west, where they’d grown up: the coastal town of Sligo in Yeats’s case.
After decades of political struggle, that part of the country had come to represent an idealised Ireland in many people’s minds. O’Malley equated the exhilarating style of Yeats’s paintings to the ‘wildness and freedom’ of the terrain he depicted.
He also liked the way these scenes boasted people from all backgrounds — tinkers and tramps included. O’Malley praised the ‘feeling of equality [and] understanding of the natural dignity of man’.
Five paintings by Yeats are now coming to auction, one of them the magnificent Reverie, above, from 1931. This depicts a contemplative passenger, reclining in a well-upholstered railway carriage. Beside him is a window, out of which a waterlogged landscape can be seen. The warm reddish tones of the interior contrast with the cool, bluish ones of the exterior. The train serves to represent modernity, in contrast with the ancient countryside beyond the window.
As well as collecting Yeats’s work, O’Malley encouraged the growth of his reputation internationally too, bringing Sir John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, to meet him in his Dublin studio in 1945, for example. The Tate duly acquired the painting Two Travellers and staged an exhibition of the artist’s work in 1948.
Yeats and O’Malley had by then become good friends, visiting each other at least once a week. As the health of both men faded in the 1950s, however, contact became restricted to letters and eventually just Christmas cards.
O’Malley died on 25 March 1957, aged 59. Yeats died three days later, aged 85. The proximity of their deaths seems apt: sharing as they did not just a friendship but an intrinsic appreciation of the Irish landscape and its people.