Michael Morgan painting

Full moon over cottages by Michael Morgan, £2250 at Piers Motley.

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Spending the majority of his working life in international education – he rose to become the Principal of the Froebel Educational Institute and a founding trustee of the American University in London – he returned to his first love, painting, in 1985.

Living near Axminster, he was inspired by the visionary landscapes of Cotswolds artist John Blockley (1921-2002) and, by the early 1990s, he had become known for his own highly stylised romantic watercolours.

Depicting locations in the south west as well as others further afield such as Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and the North Yorkshire Moors (as well as Tuscany), his works often featured remote or isolated settings. With his work admired for its individual layered style, vivid tonality and considerable wall power (even in his favoured smaller format), Morgan was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours and exhibited at a number of galleries including Allsop Gallery in Bridport and The Alpha Gallery in Sherborne.

From the late 1990s onward, a series of solo shows at Marine House at Beer proved sell-outs and helped create a notable following. Morgan also became well known among artistic groups, not least thanks to the time he spent encouraging younger artists, helping to found the Exeter-based South West Academy of Fine and Applied Arts and becoming president of The Honiton Art Society.

Core group

Michael Morgan painting

Quarry Cottage: One by Michael Morgan, £1900 at Piers Motley.

While few examples of Morgan’s original pictures have emerged at auction, a group of 14 works appeared at Piers Motley Auctions (18% buyer’s premium) in Devon on January 8. It was a significant moment for the artist’s secondary market – the first time a core group like this had come for sale, although a set of four works sold at Suffolk saleroom Lacy Scott & Knight in September last year.

The consignment was part of a deceased estate in Beer and featured works originally bought through Marine Gallery. Having been removed from a house, they were first seen by director of the Exmouth saleroom Piers Motley-Nash in a container and had sadly become a bit damp in storage (many of the mounts need replacing or require attention).

“The artist was a known character in the area,” said Motley-Nash. “Not many works have appeared on the auction market as he painted late in life and most collectors who bought them are still alive. It could be 10 years before another group like this comes up.”

The 14 lots comprised 10 original watercolours and four prints. With all of them selling above estimate, and most substantially so, they raised a combined hammer total of £10,250. Bidders included both existing collectors as well as a few new admirers. A number of other local artists who knew Morgan turned up to the sale and actively participated, and the bulk of the works sold to South West buyers although a few went further afield.

The highest prices came for the most striking and visually powerful examples. These included a 9.5in (24cm) square watercolour titled Full moon over cottages. Signed to lower left, it showed distant structures clinging to a cliff against an intensely heightened backdrop with the moonlight adding to the atmosphere.

It was estimated at just £150-180 which proved highly tempting to bidders. On the day, it flew over the guide and came down to a battle between a local artist and bidder from the Torbay area, selling to the latter at £2250. The sum appears to be the second highest auction price for the artist so far, only behind the £2400 for a slightly larger watercolour showing a winter scene that came from the artist's personal collection and sold at Atkins Auctions in Axminster in September 2022.

The same buyer bought a number of works at the sale. These included a similarly coloured watercolour and mixed media titled Quarry Cottage: One. Measuring 11.5 (29cm) square, it was again signed to the lower left. Here the estimate was £150-200, and it sold at £1900.

A third purchase by the Torbay buyer was a 12.5 x 8.75in (32 x 22cm) watercolour and mixed media titled Isolated Cottage that overshot a £150-200 pitch and took £1000.

Selling to a different buyer was Shepherd's Warning, a 15 x 12.25in (38 x 31cm) signed watercolour and mixed media that surpassed a £180-220 estimate and sold at £820. It may well have made more but for water damage to the mount.

The demand generated here will surely be noted by collectors. It will be interesting if this yields further works to emerge at subsequent auctions.