W illiam Percy French’s early 20th century watercolour, titled simply New York, shows the Manhattan skyline failing to overshadow its surrounding waters, which appear mirror-smooth. A single schooner plays its line through this quiet grey surface. The work is perhaps a serendipitous fit for an Irishman’s collection. French was one of Ireland’s great turn-of-the-century talents, a Renaissance man who was a singer, songwriter and entertainer.
As a painter French is remembered largely for his watercolour landscapes. Following the death of his wife, he cycled around Ireland with his paints, writing songs along the way. And in 1910 he toured America, producing several paintings that captured New York’s coastal environs, including this work and another of a steamer heading in to dock. The city is seen as a slim urban strip caught between two great stretches of sky and sea.
In French’s song “Celestial Painter”, he wrote: “When painters leave this world, we grieve for the hand that will work no more, But who can say that they rest always on that still celestial shore?”
Hiroshi Sugimoto also deals with celestial shores. He pares things down further, however, in his 1986 photographic study North Atlantic Ocean, Martha’s Vineyard. Sugimoto is the master of the Zen image, drawn to subjects that express ethereal qualities through their empty expanses – theatres, cinema screens – but it his seascapes that most acutely capture the allure of the void. “Water and air,” Sugimoto observes: “So very commonplace are these substances, they hardly attract attention―and yet they vouchsafe our very existence.”
Using large-format cameras and long exposures, he softens the soft, blurs the blurred. His seascapes are exercises in extreme myth-making. “Mystery of mysteries, water and air are right there before us in the sea,” notes the photographer, who has brought his methodology to bear on seas as varied as the Ligurian, Carribean, Baltic and Atlantic.
His view of the water off Martha’s Vineyard – a stretch of water known for its luxury yachts and Cape Cod trawlers – is typical of Sugimoto’s ultra-placid vision. “Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home,” says Sugimoto. “I embark on a voyage of seeing.”
Both paintings show the stiller side to the collecting drive. And there are further lots in the Yellow Ball sale with maritime themes, including two Post Impressionist scenes of the western Irish coast by Paul Henry, including a view of Achill Island in County Mayo. In his memoirs, Henry wrote that looking at “the noble cliffs of Achill Head, I felt that here I must stay somehow or another.”
And Maggi Hambling takes a more contemporary look at the surf with her Gentle Summer Wave (2009) – a swirling crescendo of colour. “This sea, the widest of mouths, roaring or laughing, is always seductive,” Hambling observes. “Life and death mysteriously co-exist in the timeless rhythm of the waves.” No doubt, French and Sugimoto would identify with the sentiment.