Cover Magazine | Spring 23 Issue 70

Ceadogán’s recent project with Hang Tough gallery in Dublin saw the creation of twelve handtufted art rugs, which sold at auction in February. Denna Jones delves into the story behind the initiative, and artist Gottfried Helnwein’s design.

Island, an auction-exhibition of twelve single-edition rugs and wall hangings designed by artists and designers born or based in Ireland, was a 2022–23 collaboration between Ceadogán Rugs and Hang Tough Contemporary. Exhibited for ten days at Hang Tough’s central Dublin gallery, the rugs were sold by a silent auction hosted by Whyte’s auction house. Sequential ‘silent’ bidding began online a week before the exhibition opened in January. Whyte’s waived the customary buyer’s premium to increase proceeds, which were distributed between the Peter McVerry Trust, the artists, and Ceadogán Rugs’ landmark generational regenerative land and wildlife project, For The Birds. At auction-end the gavel fell at €150,000—a sum that greatly exceeded the cumulative estimate for all twelve rugs. The rugs were hand-tufted at Ceadogán Rugs in Barrystown, Co Wexford, home to the company’s owners and designers Martina Navrátilová and her husband Colm Kenny, and to the flocks that provide wool for a proportion of their annual rug production. Nine of the twelve Island rugs were tufted in pure wool. Three were tufted with wool plus silk or alpaca, while Dorothy Cross’s Glow rug was tufted in wool and luminescent yarn. While Ceadogán Rugs’ For The Birds project was a beneficiary of the auction, it’s more accurate to say everyone benefits from regenerative projects that give back to the soil and wildlife rather than simply extracting resources from them.

The materials used by Ceadogán Rugs make the the company an outlier—or one might say ‘early adopter’— in hand- (gun) tufted rugs. Every element of the rugs is natural, sustainable and easily recyclable. Yarns are wool and alpaca, backings are cotton-linen, and the adhesive backing (necessary to keep yarn tufts from coming loose) is pure latex tapped from rubber trees that yield buckets of latex and are then allowed to rest while the plants replenish themselves.

The twelve invited artists and designers included internationally renowned artists Sean Scully (whose rug achieved more than four times its upper-end estimate), Dorothy Cross, who represented Ireland at the 1993 Venice Biennale, street artist Maser, and Austrian-Irish artist Gottfriend Helnwein. Emerging and established artists and designers included Domino Whisker, Lola Donoghue, Hannah Ní Mhaonaigh, Colm Mac Athlaoich, Gilbert Menassa, Alice Fitzgerald, Mary O’Connor, Sean Atmos, and Martina Navrátilová and Colm Kenny.

‘Sleeper’ is auction house terminology for a work with a price guide below its perceived true value. Island’s sleeper, for this writer, was Blue Child by Gottfried Helnwein (b. 1948). The artist’s focus is the central section of a child’s face. The eyes are closed, yet a horizontal line on each eyelid suggests the child is watchful. A painter, photographer, performance and multimedia artist, Helnwein has a recurring themes of children experiencing unseen danger, which links to his childhood in Austria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

For textile fans Blue Child’s indigo tint (with rose highlights on the nose) is a reminder of the Blue Wool Scale, a measure of the permanence of dyes and lightfastness. Impermanence in turn relates back to the plight of the children Helnwein depicts, and to one of his preferred mediums— analogue photography—where exposure to ultraviolet light causes degradation of print colours. Blue Child also taps into the imagery of blue-tint horror films such as the blue ghost child in The Ring (1998). Blue Child sold within its modest estimate. The success of Island and its artists is evidenced by the record total achieved, while the sleeper status of Blue Child means its buyer—whoever they are—has the luck of the Irish.