“Lost paintings tend to be hidden in dusty attics or partly hidden on the top floor of a gentleman’s club,” said Professor Niamh O’Sullivan of Dublin, who spotted the late 19th century painting by John Mulvany when browsing the auction website earlier this year. “I couldn’t believe it when I suddenly saw the painting I had been looking for, in my own home in Dublin.”
O'Sullivan, who was still exhilarated by her scoop, explained that she had been looking through work for sale by a French military artist when the oil painting, which depicts a historic Irish battle, flashed briefly on the screen. It was a heart-stopping moment for the professor of visual culture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin who had traveled thousands of miles in a frustrating attempt to track down this particular Irish masterpiece, including a fruitless trip to Denver, Colo., where it had last been seen in 1914.
The San Francisco collector had assumed the spectacular composition he wanted to sell was of an American battle scene, and had put it up on eBay twice, at $50,000 and at $100,000, without attracting a bidder.
O’Sullivan had been searching for the painting, "The Battle of Aughrim," since she began work on a biography of the painter seven years ago. Irish-born John Mulvany emigrated to the U.S. during the 19th century Irish Famine and is best known for his American battle scenes, such as his monumental work "Custer’s Last Rally," which was exhibited in American cities to great fanfare after Mulvany completed it in 1881. The painting would be unveiled to large crowds with a full orchestra playing martial music.
Completed in 1885 and first exhibited in Dublin, "The Battle of Aughrim" was also a sensation in its day. It depicted the decisive battle at Aughrim, Coounty Galway, on July 12, 1691 where the Protestant King of England and Ireland, William III, overwhelmed the mainly Catholic and Irish forces of the Jacobites. It was a calamitous defeat for the Irish and determined that Ireland would be subjected to British rule for two centuries more.
The battle could have gone the other way, however, leading to a different version of history. As O’Sullivan points out, when the Jacobite commander Lt. Gen. St Ruth was decapitated by a cannon ball, near victory became a rout.
William III is celebrated today as a hero by Ulster Protestants, who know him colloquially as “King Billy,” but the battle is also remembered by the native Irish for the bravery with which their countrymen fought and died, something that Mulvany portrays vividly and is the subject of a famous lament by the Chieftans. The Irish made up the bulk of the 7,000 who perished in one of the bloodiest military encounters on Irish soil.
Realizing as the canvas flashed up momentarily on eBay that she had glimpsed her holy grail, O’Sullivan struggled to find the painting again, eventually locating it on the internet auction service under American Military Battles.
O'Sullivan contacted Anne Weber, the great-grand-niece of the artist, with whom she had been working on the Mulvany project, to tell her the exciting news. Weber flew immediately to San Francisco and was quite overcome to find that it was indeed the original painting. It had been the most treasured work of her great-grand-uncle, who was a fervent Irish nationalist and had returned to Ireland to research his masterpiece.
"The Battle of Aughrim" has now been acquired in a private sale, though surprisingly not by Ireland’s National Gallery, where a spokeswoman declined to comment on the acquisitions policy, but by the Gorry Gallery of James and Therese Gorry in Dublin, which specializes in restoring old paintings.
“The painting is in good condition and the story behind it is of great interest," said James Gorry. “For Mulvany to come to Dublin as an Irish nationalist and whip up support for Ireland was very courageous at the time, especially when galleries were very conservative.”
"The Battle of Aughrim" will now go on view in December in the gallery in Dublin, which is close to the showroom on Grafton Street where the painting was first exhibited some 125 years ago. It will then be put on sale again, and is expected to fetch a six-figure sum, but this time definitely not on eBay.