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    John Fergus O’Hea of the inaugural Prince of Wales Plate at Punchestown Racecourse in 1868

    THIS large and historic topographical painting by Cork artist John Fergus O’Hea of the inaugural Prince of Wales Plate at Punchestown Racecourse in 1868 made £694,500 (€811,590) over a top estimate of £150,000 (€175,289) at Christie’s sale of the collection of B.J. Eastwood in London.  Photography was in its infancy when the Prince of Wales went to Punchestown against the wishes of his mother Queen Victoria who worried about the reputation of the then 26 year old prince, his passion for horse racing and pursuit of amusement. The first known photographs of Punchestown Festival were taken that day by John Chancellor who ran a studio in Dublin. He commissioned O’Hea to make the painting.Trained at the Cork School of Design the artist was son of barrister James O’Hea who was active in the Young Ireland movement and secretary to Daniel O’Connell.  John Fergus was a political cartoonist and noted illustrator who sometimes published under the pseudonym Spex.  He was co-founder of Zozimus, a satirical magazine similar to Punch and painted trade union banners for Cork parades in the 1860’s, ’70’s and ’80’s.In 1883 the conservative British journal St. Stephen’s Review described him as an out and out nationalist and “one of the cleverest artists in the three kingdoms” who draws his marvellous cartoons for the most miserable of Irish comic papers.  Gladstone described his pencil as “directly guided by the spirit of patriotism”.  The trip to Punchestown began at Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station with the Prince and Princess of Wales, Lord Abercorn (Lord Lieutenant) and an entourage including Lord Hamilton, Lady Georgia Hamilton, Lady Albertha, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar and Prince Teck.  In those days the train went only as far as Sallins and the rest of the journey was completed by carriage. The painting, which measures 132 cm x 214 cm, was sold at Christie’s with a key to the principal characters. The annual Spring festival at Punchestown has been a fixture since 1850, but it did not become the popular national racing festival known to this day until that day in 1868.  It is reckoned that around 150,000 people turned up to see the inaugural Prince of Wales Plate.  The Royal visit to Punchestown was also painted by Henry Barraud. Prints of his painting became popular and still turn up occasionally at auction.

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