The modernised Anglo-Norman Dunsany Castle, located in Co. Meath, fell victim to theft in 1990. Two works by one of Ireland’s most celebrated 20th century artists, Jack B Yeats, were part of the stolen cohort. Alongside three pieces by the Flemish Old Master, Anthony Van Dyck, the stolen paintings were valued collectively at circa £1 million. One of the stolen works by Yeats, entitled Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory - has made a reappearance in the headlines as of late.
This week saw The National Gallery purchase the work with support from the Government and generous donors alike. Previously on long-term loan to the gallery, it now officially belongs to the people of Ireland. The subject matter presents the aftermath of an event which occurred on the 26th of July 1914 whereby a detachment of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers intercepted a party of Irish Volunteers transporting arms from Howth. The soldiers opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators in Dublin City Centre which resulted in four casualties and over 35 individuals injured. Although Yeats himself did not witness the event, the following day he sketched a scene from the spot on Bachelor’s Walk and produced the oil painting from the sketch.
Moved by the roses that had subsequently been placed around Bachelor’s Walk, Yeats depicts a lady delicately placing a rose on the façade of a building. The focus of the painting is the action of the girl placing the rose –a symbol of remembrance – at the location of the massacre the previous day. However, left of centre, one’s gaze is drawn to the barefooted young boy walking along the cobble-stoned street. Yeats has made a conscious effort to also depict the harsh reality of life in Dublin.
Seventeen years after the theft of one of the most well-known Yeats paintings, it surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in London, unbeknown to the auction house that it was actually a stolen piece of art. To be honest, rather embarrassingly, the auction house used a reproduction of the painting to decorate the back cover of the Irish Art Sale catalogue. A 2007 RTE article reporting on the event captures Bruce Arnold’s – a journalist and Yeats biographer - utter dismay at Sotheby’s absentmindedness in the following statement:
“This is the most famous Jack Yeats painting ever to have been stolen, it is a work well known by anyone interested in Irish art”.
At the time, the work had an estimate of £250,000 – a far cry from its intrinsic value held by the nation of Ireland.
In a 1921 interview, Yeats was questioned about the nationalist implications placed behind the subject matter of the painting. He responded that there were none and that he decided to depict this young woman as a result of the immense sympathy he felt for her and admiration derived from the nobility of her action.
“This extraordinary painting by Jack B Yeats is a work of national importance” – Director of the National Gallery, Sean Rainbird.
The painting is currently on display in the Millennium Wing of the National Gallery.