As a lawyer, Val Timon had access to the early Internet for work.
A couple of decades back, he was online, looking for an image of the Paris metro signs in the art nouveau style. He had spent years on and off in France, developing a profound love for its art and culture.
This time, though, his search took him in an unexpected direction. He stumbled on a picture he had never seen before.
“I didn’t know who it was by, of a girl sitting by an easel, and it went like a flame into my stomach, and through me and out of my head,” he says.
A little digging gave him a name for the artist, and a provenance: Alphonse Mucha from Ivančice in the Czech Republic.
It was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. “I started to look for his stuff when eBay started, and I collected a lot of his graphics in terms of magazines and stuff that he’d illustrated,” he said.
In the years since, Timon has travelled the world, hunting down works by Mucha. His Dublin home is stacked with prints, curios and paintings, guarded by stately Egyptian statuettes.
In the coming weeks, he plans to begin to sell copies of Mucha’s work that haven’t been widely seen before, a testament to his life’s work.
The First Piece
Timon’s collection contains no major works, but it is a chronicle of the artist’s life and process.
Alphonse Mucha was an influential Czech designer in the early twentieth century. He worked mainly as an illustrator, until a chance poster commission made him famous.
The subject is usually mundane: cigarettes, alcohol, baby food. His works were incredibly detailed and relentlessly imitated.
According to Philip McEvansoneya, a lecturer in the history of painting at Trinity College, Mucha’s original works are highly collectable.
“Mucha’s work regained popularity from the 1960s onwards and is now available in every poster shop in town and on many other products,” says McEvansoneya.
Timon would study catalogues and books for hours at night, five days a week, for many years, he says. “One evening, I saw something, and I said, ‘This is ridiculous.’ It was a magazine, and I said, ‘That’s not supposed to exist.’”
Mucha’s first influential poster was for the actress Sara Bernhardt for her 1894 play, Gismonda. The magazine was a companion booklet with artwork by Mucha, long since considered lost.
“In 1980, in Darmstadt, they had a festival relating to him, and they produced a book, and in it there’s a draft of a magazine that went with Gismonda in which he was to have painted scenes from Gismonda, because he started off in Vienna doing scenes in a theatre,” he says.
“So, there was this outline, and then this piece came for sale in Canada, and it was just a magazine. I’d be checking every night, and I said to myself, this isn’t a draft, this is the real thing,” he says.
Timon bought the work and brought it back to Ireland, where the National Gallery built him a light-proof box to protect it from discolouration.
It was already slightly damaged. “I found out after I’d bought it that the individual who had had it had moved to Canada from France, and this was an item that had been in a barn, in a butcher’s block for a hundred years before it was opened,” says Timon.
Meeting the Family
With the Gismonda magazine secured, Timon decided to get in touch with Mucha scholar Anna Dvorak. She invited him to Prague and introduced him to the Mucha family, and to a researcher called Pavel Nojek.
“I went to the house, which was opposite the castle, where the Mucha family live, but there are two Mucha families. There’s the official Mucha family, and the other Mucha family, and one of them had the jewellery,” says Timon.
He remembers their fascination with the piece. It was framed with jewellery designs they had never seen. Their home, shrouded in darkness to preserve the paintings, stands in the shadow of Prague’s castle.
Nojek had spent 20 years researching all the books and magazines Mucha had illustrated. He gave Timon his notes.
Timon built up his collection gradually.
“I bought one original plate, from the forty plates of the Figures Decoratifs. I remember the excitement, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, he would have overseen that being made on the lithographic press.’”
Timon explains the arduous process: the weight of the stone against the large format of the posters, and the impossibility of making a poster from a single block.
“They could only make them in two halves, and then move the halves together. I haven’t been lucky enough to have originals of those, but I have exact copies, limited copies, that were made by his son, which are beautiful. And a few other items,” he says.
Nojek’s research gave Timon an edge as he visited bookshops the world over, covertly searching for long-lost works of art: “I could go back, and then, without people knowing and being able to up the price, go into all the bookstores around the world, look for the book that would have the Mucha item in it without saying I’m looking for Mucha.”
He reckons he has collected about half of what Nojek catalogued. “I started trying to get as many as I could but some of them were so expensive you couldn’t get them.”
Does he have any originals? “That would be telling,” he says, with a laugh.
In 1918, Mucha designed the helmet to be worn by Prague’s police captains. Timon believes the one in his possession is the last of its kind in the world. He tracked it to Australia.
The helmet is small, round and velvet black. The red enamel insignia was designed by the artist, along with silver stars and lions’ heads tapering front to back.
A Lifelong Pursuit
“Val is a connoisseur. He knows the artist, and is almost like a curator or archivist, more than he is interested in the prestige,” says Audrey Brennan, an art historian, and an old acquaintance of Timon’s.
Lithographs and drawing are often “undervalued”, Brennan says. They’re seen as preparatory pieces, and not works in their own right.
She explains that there are few private art collections in Ireland, but that it’s gaining in popularity. There is great cultural value in drawings, and with private collectors, you often end up with a very complete archive, she says.
What is it that draws a person to collecting works of art? “It should be genuine personal affection, things that will be displayed, studied and enjoyed, things that will enhance a place to live or a place to work,” says McEvansoneya.
Timon put his life and work on hold, and spent everything he could on Mucha. “The main danger for me is finding stuff of his that I’ve never seen before. It’s an obsession – I had to stop,” he says.
He hasn’t collected for 10 years, but he isn’t finished yet. He plans to produce museum-quality copies of lesser-known works to sell on, so that he can, one day, begin buying again.