How Sligo Bagged a Jack B. Yeats Painting Once Owned by Graham Greene…

14th February 2011
Pól Ó Conghaile

Man in a Room Thinking, Jack B Yeats


Taking the canvas into his hands, Seamus Kealy didn’t break a sweat.

To less experienced travellers, the prospect of carrying a Jack B. Yeats painting worth almost €80,000 across international borders might seem daunting. To him, it was just the latest chapter in a story laced with literary love affairs, Swiss vaults and enigmatic intermediaries. Holding the painting, he says, simply felt “great”.

“The preciousness of the work wasn’t intimidating,” the director and curator of Sligo’s Model Gallery recalls. “It was just a lovely feeling to be with it in this strange chamber in Lausanne. I never for a second felt nervous or that it might not work out. The team at the Model are really diligent. Everything was prepared, doubled-over; there was going to be no error with paperwork.”

The painting is ‘Man in a Room Thinking’, and the story of its journey from Switzerland to Sligo reads straight out of Freddie Forsyth.

Last year, the 8.5 x 13.5 inch work was one of hundreds identified for possible inclusion in ‘Jack B. Yeats: The Outsider’, a major exhibition at the Model Gallery. Never before seen in public, the small oil gave the first hints of its big history when staff unearthed its last provenance: ‘Graham Greene, Paris.’

Greene, the author of Our Man in Havana and The Third Man, is one of the 20th century’s most famous novelists. Through the goodwill of his agent in London, staff at the Model tracked ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ down to a vault in Lausanne. Kealy wrote to the executor of Greene’s estate, and a loan was agreed.

Travelling to the executer’s offices last June, he was shown into a wood-panelled room anchored by an antique desk. Old law books and journals lay everywhere, but nothing seemed dusty. He remembers being served one of the best coffees he ever tasted, and a Kafkaesque clock ticked.

“Eventually the Swiss gentleman came in. He was in his mid-late 50s and his clothes were well-pressed, but he was far from the stiff, uptight lawyer I had imagined. He knew I was coming, but at 38, I was a younger than he expected. I spoke in French, but he switched into English, which he spoke perfectly eloquently.”

After conversing with Kealy for a few moments, the Swiss gentleman stepped out, returning with a painting wrapped in cardboard and plastic. Undoing the wrapping, the two men gazed on a work locked away since Greene’s death in 1991.

‘Man in a Room Thinking’ was painted by Yeats in 1947. Then in his 70s, the work was completed in a creative burst following the death of his wife, Mary Cottenham. It is striking without being sensational, featuring a man brooding against a backdrop of crisp brushstrokes, and an abiding aura of solitude and melancholy.

“It’s a simple painting with not a lot of action going on in it,” Kealy says. “But sometimes the simplicity of a work like that can be quite powerful. That was clearly something Graham Greene was attracted to.”

Greene bought the painting, along with ‘A Horseman Enters a Town at Night’ – another work on display in the Model exhibition – for his Paris apartment over 60 years ago. Yeats was admired by writers (Joyce and Beckett both owned paintings by him), so it would not have been unusual for the novelist to have known of his work.

There may have been a deeper connection, however. In 1947, the year ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ first appeared in Victor Waddington’s Dublin Gallery, Greene embarked on a rollercoaster affair with American heiress Catherine Walston – the paramour to whom he would later dedicate ‘The End of the Affair’.

Walston had a cottage on Achill Island, where the couple spent several summers. At the time, she owned a portrait of W.B Yeats, as well as being friends with two collectors of Jack B. Yeats’s work. It’s a tantalising thought – that Greene’s purchase could have been prompted by this great literary love story.

Greene’s affair with Walston fizzled out as her Catholic faith grew, but ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ continued to hang in his Paris apartment. It was transferred to a secure vault after the author’s death in Switzerland at the age of 86.

“I remember my father forcing Graham Greene’s novels on me when I was 12, and he subsequently became one of my favourite novelists,” Kealy says. “The painting was mostly locked away after he died, but that’s something that happens now and then in the art world. A lost work re-surfaces, and luckily we were able to track this one down… it was amazing to finally see the painting.”

His nerves held steady, Kealy adds, because as a curator and painter himself, he is used to handling art. After taking lunch with the Swiss gentleman, he left in the rain with a parcel under his arm, and caught the train to Geneva Airport.

Of course, one doesn’t just cram an €80,000 painting into a backpack. Kealy used a hard-shelled carry-on case, “a James Bond-esque briefcase with foam inside and a locking mechanism,” he says. “When you open it, it even makes a ‘whoosh’ sound.”

From Geneva, he flew with Aer Lingus to Dublin, storing his case in the overhead bins. “I had no concern whatsoever. If anyone had opened the overhead above me, I probably would have gotten out of my seat and made sure they didn’t move the case. But that didn’t happen. As long as I knew the work was up there, I was fine. The passengers around me probably thought it was fancy Swiss hand luggage!”

In both Dublin and Geneva, customs officers were expecting him – couriers moving art internationally are obliged to give advance notice of its nature, value, ownership and expected duration abroad. Any ambiguity can scupper an entire operation. “There can’t be any surprises,” as Kealy says. “That’s the trick.”

In the event, the transfer passed off beautifully, and that June, Kealy brought ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ safely back to Yeats’s beloved Sligo.

Shortly afterwards, however, unforeseen circumstances forced Model to reschedule its exhibition to February of this year. The little painting had continued to evade the public after all – from Sligo, it was shipped to Christie’s in London, where it was sold at auction last November for £66,050 (€77,525) – twice the guide price.

“That’s the unpredictability of the art world,” Kealy says. “An economic slump doesn’t necessarily have an impact on the sale of art and how it’s valued. We watched from afar with interest. The press wondered would we buy it, but there’s no way Model would be in a position to purchase something of that value.”

Yeats, who died in 1957, is one of the Irish artists most sought-after by collectors worldwide. The highest price paid for a painting of his was in 1999 when Sotheby’s sold ‘The Wild Ones’ for over £1.2 million (€1.4 million).

For all of Seamus Kealy’s efforts, it looked like ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ might continue its mystery. The Model asked Christie’s to request that any buyer make the work available for its Yeats exhibition, but such requests carry no obligation, and in any event, the buyer chose to remain anonymous.

Then a final, remarkable twist: the collector who bid successfully for ‘Man in a Room Thinking’ turned out not only to be Irish, but to be based in Sligo. He or she bought ‘A Horseman Enters a Town at Night’ at the same auction, has developed a relationship with the Model, and both paintings are set to go on public view for the first time when ‘Jack B Yeats: The Outsider’ opens this February 6th.

Kealy laughs at the serendipity of it all. “I had a feeling that, because of the way we acquired this work, it was going to come back to us again.”


Jack B Yeats: The Outsider runs at the Model Gallery in Sligo until June 5, 2011. Contact 071 914-1405 or visit for details.