Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

A painting at Ewbank's (15% buyer's premium) sale in Woking, Surrey, on December 9 demonstrated the market potential of special-interest works when an oil-on-board by Reginald Mills caused a modest surprise when it outstripped its £300-500 estimate and sold at £900.

The 11 x 14in (28 x 36cm) painting, dated 1941, depicted men from the London Auxiliary Fire Service guiding four anxious horses to safety away from a blaze during the Blitz.

Entitled Rescuing Horses, it was bought by a collector of Fire Service memorabilia from Mid-Wales, who was himself a retired fire officer and was researching the lives of some 150 artists, including Mills, who were commissioned to paint pictures during the Second World War to illustrate the work of the AFS. The buyer already owned a second version of the same subject by the artist.

Between 1921 and 1938, Reginald Mills primarily exhibited coastal and landscape paintings, but joined the AFS after the outbreak of the Second World War.

There he met the cartoonist Ben Betts, who had worked on both the Daily Mirror and on the sports pages of the Daily Express. The two became friends and Mills gave Betts his Rescuing Horses as a gift.

The picture survived the rest of the war and remained in Betts' family after he died aged 56. His son, Julian, who lives in Guildford consigned the painting to the Ewbank sale after finding it hidden away in the corner of an attic.

Auctioneer Christopher Ewbank said the painting was in reasonable condition and added that it was its appeal to a certain niche market that had made it particularly desirable.

Reginald Mills is not a painter whose works regularly appear at auction. However, in November 2003, his Mounted Policeman in Trafalgar Square, measuring 15 x 21in (38 x 54cm), made £350 at Christie's South Kensington.

Elsewhere in the sale, a typical 1868 picture of cows and sheep by Thomas Sidney Cooper (1803-1902) sold to a private buyer for £2400. Titled Near Canterbury, the signed and dated oil also depicted the city of the artist's birth in the background.