Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

But what, in terms of art market categorisations, is Jack Vettriano if he isn’t a historical genre painter?

Nostalgia is the basic stock-in-trade of both Sadler and Vettriano, and although 1950s Chinatown-on-Sea might currently seem a very different and infinitely more compelling place than the half-timbered inns of Ye Olde England, another 100 years and a few more shifts in collecting fashion may well reveal that in terms of feel-good escapism and limited technique these two painters had rather a lot in common. According to Christopher Wood’s entry on the now all-but-forgotten Sadler in the Dictionary of Victorian Painters: “His pictures were very popular and much reproduced in engravings.” Sounds familiar? Jack Vettriano is obviously the Walter Dendy Sadler of our day.

For the moment at least, although Sadler still has a following among traditionally-minded picture collectors, there remains a massive differential in price between these two genre painters. The signed and dated 2ft 9 1/2in x 3ft 11in (85cm x 1.20m) Sadler canvas offered at Cheffins, entitled Old and Crusted, was one of the artist’s best-known works, having been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1888.

It had been acquired by its Buckinghamshire vendor in 1980 from the Beaconsfield gallery of David Messum in the pre-boom days when this kind of large-scale Victorian genre canvas could be bought at auction for under £5000. It reappeared here in Cambridge with a valuation of £30,000-50,000, the upper estimate of which was bid by a provincial dealer against opposition from at least three telephones.

This and a number of other results from this Cambridge sale were the latest demonstrations of the renewed air of confidence in the market for traditional 19th century pictures.

As has been the case at so many other recent UK picture sales, a new influx of private money seems to be the main explanation for the improved levels of demand.

“There are a lot of people out there looking for somewhere to put their spare cash,” says Cheffins’ Jonathan Law.

“We are increasingly finding that private buyers will pay up to £30,000 for the right kind of decorative genre painting, although they’ll be prepared to pay £50,000 for a good Winifred Nicholson.

“Strangely, they’ll pay this sort of money for a painting, but they won’t do it for a piece of furniture.”

This analysis was borne out by some healthy private bidding on traditional pictures in the £10,000-30,000 range (Cheffins’ Modern British buyers will be catered for later in the summer). An East Anglian collector was prepared to give what looks like a record £25,000 (estimate £15,000-20,000) for a signed 19 1/4in x 2ft 2 1/4in (49 x 67cm) genre canvas, Tea at the Vicarage, by Margaret Dovaston (1884-1955) entered by a Dublin vendor.

Coincidentally, the previous high for this artist appears to be the £20,000 paid for The Toast at these same Cambridge rooms last December.

Private bidders also carried off a pair of William Shayer Senior (1787-1879) cottage interior scenes on board, measuring 13 3/4 x 17in (35 x 43cm), and a similarly sized Henry Perlee Parker (1795-1873) canvas of the notorious Newcastle drinking dive ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, for mid-estimate sums of £18,000 and £12,000 respectively. The Shayers had been bought at Christie’s in November 1990 for £5800.