Estimated at £200-300 at the July 21 auction in Stansted Mountfitchet, bidders came from the UK, US, France and the Netherlands. After a 10-minute battle, the lot was knocked down to a Dutch buyer.
The two 10.25 x 7in (26 x 18cm) pen and ink sketches on buff paper both depicted military subjects – one showing a soldier standing with a pike and the other a separate figure holding a blunderbuss.
They came from a local property that did not yield any other significant treasures, although a relative of the previous owners had apparently worked at Christie’s at some point in the past.
With the items catalogued during the lockdown, this was the first time in more than 15 years that Sworders’ specialist picture consultant had been unable to inspect the works offered – hence the sparse cataloguing and lowly pitch.
A few others who had looked at them thought they might be 18th century Italian but, after the catalogue went live online, the sudden interest that emerged led the auction house to reassess them. Sworders’ chairman Guy Schooling admitted the works had “slipped through” but the auction house soon realised these drawings were likely to be earlier works by Jacob de Gheyn the Younger (1565-1629) and the catalogue entry was duly adjusted (although the estimate remained unchanged).
‘The Exercise of Armes’
The drawings were in fact part of a well-known series of works by the Antwerp-born artist.
Gheyn the Younger was commissioned in 1597 by the cousin of the Prince of Orange to produce a series of drawings for a military handbook intended as a training manual for officers in the newly formed Dutch standing army.
The completed drawings, which demonstrated the correct handling of the pike, the musket and the caliver (early handgun like an arquebus), were then engraved by de Gheyn’s pupils for the publication Wapenhandelinghe van Roers, Masquetten ende Spiessen, better known in English as The Exercise of Armes, which eventually appeared in 1607 with 117 plates. The illustrated guide was intended to standardise drills and remained an influential work which is regarded as one of the defining military handbooks of the age.
On publication, it was immediately translated into English and Danish with French and German editions published a year later. The Delft factories produced a series of tiles based on the engravings and at Clifton Hall in Nottinghamshire the designs were used for paintings on the panelling.
More than half of de Gheyn’s original drawings for the series are known to survive, including 25 which are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and 20 in the National Maritime Museum in London.
A number have appeared at auction before, with the highest prices fetched, according to ‘Artprice by Artmarket’, being Trayle your pike that made £58,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2010 and Charge your pike at the right foote that sold for £46,000 at Christie’s in July 2014.
The drawings themselves are admired not just for being pieces of military history, but also for de Gheyn’s treatment of the subjects and the way he conveyed the movement of the figures and the fine details of their costume.
The examples at Sworders came in black and gilt frames and were behind glass but, on close inspection, the paper carried watermarks that matched known examples from the series. Although they suffered from some staining, foxing and discolouration, particularly to the edges, the overall condition was deemed good for works of their age.
While drawings by de Gheyn the Younger have made over £500,000 on a couple of occasions, the £125,000 price for two The Exercise of Armes drawings here represented an auction record for drawings from this series.
Among the underbidders was dealer Crispian Riley-Smith who described them as “amazing images in great condition whose whereabouts was previously unknown”. He described the sum fetched as “a full price”.
With 25% buyer’s premium included, the winning bidder will be paying more than £156,000.