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Every collector knows that sooner or later the objects he collects become not only part of his life but of his own psyche, as well. Rather like marriage. The process may start with an explosion of enthusiasm or begin more slowly and thoughtfully, depending upon the nature of the individual and the circumstance. My involvement in Irish painting - indeed in Ireland itself - happened in a flash when as a junior at Yale, I heard the American critic and poet, Horace Gregory, give a talk on William Butler Yeats, ending by reading Sailing to Byzantium. That was it! Increasingly enamoured of Yeats's poety, I undertook, in my senior year, to compile a bibliography of his works for the Yale library. Although it was 1939, the year of the poet's death, I was able to correspond with his family and friends. This was to prove helpful when, some eight years later, Joan Osborn and I decided to celebrate our honeymoon in Ireland, and, after arriving in Shannon, wended our way to the vibrant, elegantly shabby town that was then Dublin. We carried a letter of introduction to the Provost of Trinity from Oliver Gogarty. Lenox Robinson, writer and friend of Yeats met us at Buswells and took us to lunch, greeting my new bride with a bunch of spring flowers. Joseph Hone, the poet's early biographer, became our mentor, finding a farm house to board us near him and his wife in Enniskerry. With growing excitement, I worked my way through a banned copy of Ulysses while the rain poured down outside. Later, after a two month's bicycle trip ending in Yeats country, we returned to Dublin, where we not only become friends of the poet's wife, George, but received an invitation for tea from Jack Yeats, the poet's younger brother. After tea the artist, much to my embarrassment, asked me to autograph his copy of my bibliography and then, to our delight, invited us into his studio. Paintings were stacked against the wall like sandwiches, a cornucopia of radiant colour and movement. We were enthralled but too shy to ask if one might be for sale, and regretted it ever after.
When Joan and I returned to New York, we found an oddly romantic house to buy underneath the Hudson Palisades and behind the aluminium factory in Edgewater, New Jersey. Shortly after moving in, a large gallery on lower Park Avenue announced a show of modern Irish painting, the first since the end of the war. As we had hoped, there were several of Jack Yeats's oils. After some hesitation at the $1500 price tag, we bought a scene of a boy looking out over a myriad of islands and, the painting in the back of our second-hand Plymouth, took it home to Edgewater. That evening, Joan's mother, an artist herself, came to dinner. She was enchanted by the picture but noted that we lacked furniture - no sofa nor comfortable chairs.
'We can't afford them now' I said. 'We bought the Yeats'.
'You must have some furniture. You better take the painting back'.
'I'd be embarrassed' I said. 'And I doubt that they'd agree'.
'Don't worry, I can handle dealers. I'll return it for you'.
After dinner, rather awed by my mother-in-law, I packed our new painting in the back of Marjorie's car - and never saw it again. In it's place we bought a large, ugly sofa covered with an off-white material pierced by lightening-like lines in red and black.
It was another twenty years before we bought a house in Ireland and with walls to fill, I went to Dawson's Gallery on Dawson Street. Again, paintings by Jack Yeats were stacked against the wall. Although they were considerably higher in price than the one we had returned, I bought not only Looking About Him (lot 50), a rich, evocative painting of the central images in the artist's life and work, but also a brilliant early oil of a trotting race - one of Yeats's favourites - Here She Comes! (lot 45), as well as several drawings that our family love. I wish I could have afforded a few more major paintings of equal quality.
Later I began collecting 18th Century drawings and watercolours. They were difficult to find, perhaps becuase owners didn't think they were worth much. Robert Goff at Cynthia O'Connor's Gallery was the expert. Then Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin, and Professor Crookshank published their pioneering Painters of Ireland and, for the first time, the whole sweep of Irish painting from the 17th Century to the present was described, analysed and placed in their historical context. I owe to them - and to the superb collection in the National Gallery - the next phase in my collecting: buying a fine Thomas Roberts painting of Weir House, Lucan (lot 22); a superb silvery Italian scene by Simon Delane (lot 72); a sparkling 17th Century portrait of young Dudley Cosby of Stadbally by James Latham (lot 68), and a large whimsical 19th Century picnic scene by Joseph Haverty of the Reilly family with the Mourne mountains and Carlingford lough in the background (lot 67).
The seventies and eighties were wonderful times for collectors. More and more paintings were wending their way from country houses into the market. Many of them landed in Adams for auction, a melange of the good, mediocre, and superb displayed, frame against frame, on the walls of a large second-floor room. Dealers, collectors and the merely curious bought catalogues and crowded in for the bidding. Provenance and attribution were a continuing problem. A nice 18th Century portrait on wood, labelled 'Gilbert Stuart', carried an estimate of five hundred pounds, clearly indicating that only the seller believed it was by him. I bought it nevertheless. A darkish oil of the Customs House seen across the Liffey was labelled 'William Sadler'. It was especially fine and I asked Robert Goff to bid on it for me. He said he was bidding on it himself as he was convinced it wasn't as labelled but by a little known but very good painter, James Hore. I said 'Good, you buy it and then sell it to me'. That is what he did, later writing an article establishing its identity (lot 71).
Auctions were also held in country houses, an important source of art for dealers, either bidding for themselves or a client. By now, many of these dealers were friends. In addition to Robert Goff, there was the Oriel Gallery on Clare Street where I found Paul Henry's painting of a bog at dusk (lot 42) as well as a mad Orpen of a nude man stretched out on a rocky promontory, a large bird hovering above (Prometheus perhaps) (lot 41). A few doors away, Sean Collins ran the Godolphin Gallery. Sean had a fine eye for Irish painting which he loved almost as much as his polo ponies. In the evening we could find him in the crowded Shelbourne bar, discussing horses. From him we bought the Renée Honta nude which hangs over the fireplace in my library. 'A fine woman', declared Paddy McGilton who took care of our place, 'but the proportions are wrong'. A William Leech of the bridge in Regent's Park (lot 97) also came from Godolphin as well as the wondeful little Sarah Purser (lot 29). One day Sean arrived at our house in Tipperary on his way back from Cork with two watercolours (one was Lady Kate Dobbin's enchanting interior of a drawing room) (lot 83) insisting that Joan buy them. Of course she did - enough for Sean to buy several bundles of hay and a drink or two at the Shelbourne. From Sean O'Criadain we bought our Mainie Jellett (lot 12) and, one of our favourites, the startlingly thin reclining nude by Margaret Clarke (lot 14) that hung over our bed. Grace Pym introduced us to Mildred Anne Butler with a scene of doves outside of the Conservatory at Kilmurry (lot 3), and found the Haverty picnic scene (lot 67) that, appropriately, hung in our dining room. John Taylor, who learned his trade in the old Dawson Gallery, featured more modern works, but we also bought from him the mysterious Osborne oil of the station at Dun Laoghaire harbour at dusk, a small girl in a blue dress in the foreground (lot 36). And from Green's antiques, to my surprise, our great discovery of portfolio of rare 18th Century drawings and watercolours by John Nixon; an early scene of Linen Hall in Belfast, one of Blarney Castle, and sketches of Dublin characters (lots 73-80). And so it went.
Only the greatest collections can cover the entirety of a nation's art. A small one must select special areas that appeal to the collector's taste. One of our interests, other than 17th and 18th Century, were the small but important group of men and women who, in the late 19th and early 20th Century, studied and worked in France, and bought modernism to Ireland; Roderic O'Conor, Nathaniel Hone, John Lavery, Sarah Purser, Mainie Jellett and a number of others. A seminal group.
And now it is over. The walls are bare, or almost. But what fun we had! What a delight for us and our family to have lived with such rich and vibrant members of an Irish past - of a tradition of art and artists that continues today in new and exciting ways.
So goodbye, old friends. It's time. Keep well.
The William and Joan Roth Collection - an overview by Professor Kenneth McConkey
In the grim winter months of 1939, W.H. Auden wrote one of his greatest poems as a gaunt memorial to W.B. Yeats. The Irish poet had come to his final rest on the hill at Roquebrune and for Auden 'the day of his death was a dark, cold day'. On what must have been equally cold days that winter, in New Haven, Connecticut, a student in his senior year at Yale, was equally engrossed in Yeats. His passion for the Irish poet led him to compile a bibliography of his works for publication by the Yale University Library, and in the process he entered into correspondence with some of the Yeats's family and friends. His name was William Matson Roth.
The war, which Auden had promised, intervened, and Roth was consigned to Alaska, to the China/Burma Command. Ireland waited until his honeymoon of 1946 when he and his new wife, Joan, stayed at Buswells. They met Lenox Robinson and Joseph Hone, and both conceived a lifelong affection for the country and its people. In the late 1960s, while working as a Special Representative for Trade Negotiations in the Office of the President, Roth bought an Irish retreat, and began to collect Irish Art. The Roths' eyes were trained in the National Gallery of Ireland, and their interest sustained by reading Crookshank and Glin's The Painters of Ireland, which appeared in 1978.
William and Joan Roth responded particularly well to the moody Irish landscapes of the 18th Century and early 19th Century. The work of Roberts and Ashford was underrated and obscure at the time when they bought the splendid A View of the River Liffey with the Weir in Lucan House Demesne, Co. Dublin (lot 22) and Figures on a path in a wooded Landscape with Ruins (lot 23). One contains a courting couple seated on the river bank, while in the other, peasants are driving their cattle and sheep to market. Both works fit comfortably into European traditions, echoing the early motifs of Gainsborough and the atmospherics of Claude. However, the most distinguished Claudian in the Roth collection is undoubtedly Solomon Delane, who went to Rome around 1764 and remained there for at least ten years. With An Italianate Landscape (lot 72), we are in the Roman Campagna. The dark brooding foreground gives way to a crystalline middle distance, emphasising the great simple abstract shapes of trees and rocks, in a confident manner that rivals Richard Wilson.
In the early 1980s, when scholars like Sheehy and Campbell were opening up late 19th Century Irish art to serious attention, the Roths turned their attention to artists of Hone, Osborne, Lavery and Leech's generations. They acquired fine groups of drawings by Purser, Osborne and Yeats, which include the important Osborne drawing after Cherry Ripe, 1889 (Ulster Museum, Belfast) (lot 34). The Roths' Laverys are pictures painted at the end of the Great War, one a study of the elegant Margot Asquith (lot 39), wife of the Liberal Prime Minister, and the other, a colourful sketch of the open-air bathing pool at North Berwick (lot 38), painted while the Laverys were staying in Scotland with Sir Patrick Ford.
Like many academic collections, the Roths aimed to be representative, acquiring fine 'cubist' abstracts by Mainie Jellett (lots 12-13) and Evie Hone (lot 11). They also brought their collection up-to-date with works by Hill (lot 92), Cooke (lot 93) and Farrell (lot 94), however, it was back with Yeats that the collection truly began. An early visit to Jack B. Yeats's studio initially fired the Roths' enthusiasm. Paintings, William Roth declared, were 'stacked against the wall like sandwiches' and two of them were, ten years after the painter's death, to become prized possessions. These are the extraordinary, early Here She Comes! (lot 45) and the vivid, late work Looking About Him (lot 50). The first of these depicts a trotting race, but where others might tackle the subject as a conventional race-goer, Yeats produces an unusual composition, contrasting the speed of the animals with the spectators who, for all the implied anticipation of the title, view the event with complete passivity. Yeats's sense of irony in the use of titles, draws him into the wry humour of Irish conversation. The woman on the right with her basket, says 'here she comes', but the bookie she speaks to isn't interested enough to look. In his later paintings, Yeats did not lose this sense of everyday exchange in ordinary life. But his messages become more profound. We see Beckettian travellers, pedlars, grounded sailors, and the sad performers in country circuses. Each, as in Looking about Him, carries the vestiges of a whole society in his mental baggage - he is in the foreground, they, Virgilian shades, in the background. For all of us, Yeats explores a mental landscape, in which we talk to ghosts.
William Matson Roth grasped this concept as a 'senior' at Yale, in the poetry of William Butler Yeats - and at a particular moment in time. The dark cold days in New Haven led out into Irish hills and fields, and a formidable confrontation with Irish life through works of art.