Chapter 41. The Case of the Irish Surrealist
The client had engaged my professional services to appraise a framed, oil-on-board painting bearing the monogram of Irish artist Colin Middleton (19101983) in the lower right. The size of the image was approximately 23 by 24 inches, and on the back of the painting appeared the title Witch: Mullaghderg and the date 1964, as well as the artists signature.
My client and her former husband had purchased the painting directly from Middleton when he lived in Ardglass, Northern Ireland. At the time, around 1964, the two were visiting Northern Ireland when they met Middleton with whom they had been acquainted before they immigrated to Canada, in the early 1950s.
My client became friends with the artist when she was in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. He had given her paints, pencils and paper and encouraged her to take up painting to help speed her recovery. Over the years, their friendship matured and she continued to paint under his tutelage. Her subsequent work was reflective of Middletons stylistic approach to painting non-representational subject matter.
Middleton regarded himself as the only Surrealist working in Ireland in the 1930s, and he continued to paint in this style into the 1950s. His works from this period are rarely sold on the secondary market. Consequently, estimates of fair market value for them are robust.
According to my client, Middleton told her the image derived from an encounter hed had while walking on a misty night along a country road in County Donegal, Eire, he met an old woman dressed in black and wearing a black shawl. The Mediterranean tradition of old women dressing this way to show that they are widows is still practised in many parts of Ireland, and it is not uncommon to see them walking along the roadsides, as walking is usually their preferred means of getting from one place to another. They continue the great tradition of walking, as the Irish are known to be enthusiastic and prolific walkers. One can well surmise that meeting this woman under such evocative circumstances would have seemed surreal to Middleton.
This piece appears to be a transitional work between Middletons figurative surrealism of the early to late 1950s and the more geometric abstraction pieces dating from the late 1960s.
The work exhibits elements of the surreal, with the realistically rendered and illuminated face, topped with a red knitted cap and the figure cloaked in black abstracted outerwear. The composition harkens back to Middletons earlier works, with its focus of a single figure in a landscape. The suggestion of the mystical or spiritual is enhanced by the face peering out from the flat geometry of the abstracted clothing, which appears as both a psychological and a physical constraint.
One wonders what secret this witch is keeping from the viewer, and what the consequences of that profane knowledge could be.
Next: The Case of the Seductive Souvenir or Cruise Ship Art