Auctions | March 5, 2013

Seamus Heaney Portrait Leads Sale of His Work at Bonhams

A deeply characterful portrait of Seamus Heaney by Peter Edwards, who also painted the portrait of the Irish poet which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London, is be auctioned at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street, on 10 April during the sale of Roy Davids Collection Part III: Poetry: Poetical  Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets.   

Estimated at £6,000-8,000, it is to be sold with the original pencil drawing made at Heaney’s Dublin home in 1987 from which the portrait was subsequently painted. Seamus Heaney wrote about the pleasure of sitting for Edwards in his 2008 memoir ‘Stepping Stones’.

The portrait is one of several items related to Seamus Heaney in the sale including a number of photographs - one particularly fine image by John Minihan was taken for the poet’s 70th birthday in 2009 (estimate £400-600)  - and very early handwritten drafts of his poem, ‘Song’, from the collection, ‘Field Work.’ 

The big differences between the drafts and the final printed version of ‘Song’ show how a poem can develop and take shape as the writer works on his initial idea.  For example, the draft lines:


‘birch trees stand off among the rushes

Between the bye-road and the motorway

Birch trees, at a wet and sunlit distance

Stand off among the rushes


A girl in a cloche hat

At eight o’clock on a Monday morning…’


become in the printed version:

‘A rowan like a lipsticked girl

Between the by-road and the main road

Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance

Stand off among the rushes’


Heaney has commented, ‘the real inspiration is a little clump of birch-trees standing down a field just off the M1 motorway in Ulster, in Co Tyrone, near a place called King’s Island.”  The draft of ‘Song’ is estimated at £3,500 - 4,000.

Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets, is the fruit of 40 years of collecting by the poet and scholar Roy Davids and is the finest collection of poetry ever to come to auction.  In Mr David’s own words, “it would now be impossible for the present collection to be even approximately replicated.”