MacLeod’s Maidens, Skye

MacLeod’s Maidens, Skye by John Brett, £35,000 at Richard Winterton.

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The Coopers continued to add to it, making many auction purchases themselves.

But among three large paintings already in situ was a monumental Victorian seascape showing MacLeod’s Maidens, the dramatic group of sea stacks off the Isle of Skye. The 3ft 4in x 6ft 11in (1.01 x 2.1m) oil on canvas by John Brett (1831-1902) turned out to be the most sought after lot from the collection after it was consigned to Richard Winterton (22% buyer’s premium) in Lichfield.

Signed and dated 1884, the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the year it was painted and was subsequently sold for £800 by dealer Thomas Agnew & Son to cotton manufacturer TJ Hirst of Huddersfield (it retained a facsimile copy of the receipt of purchase).

The auction house placed a £1000-1500 estimate on the picture but, ahead of the sale on May 20-21, it was contacted by John Brett’s great-grandson Charles Brett who supplied a ream of further information about the work.

He revealed that, in the year before he painted it, the artist had acquired a 210-ton schooner from the Earl of Caledon with the intention of using it as a floating studio. Brett then set sail in June 1883 with his wife and seven children and the crew of 12 on a voyage up the west coast of the British Isles, round the north of Scotland, and down the east coast, ending up at Brightlingsea in mid-October.

Working from a specially constructed deck-house, Brett recorded in the ship’s log that he made many pencil sketches of Macleod’s Maidens in September 1883. Charles Brett said: “Close observation from the boat enabled [my great grandfather] to capture this unique view of the curious natural phenomena, with their semi-human forms.”

He added that the sketches were later worked up into the finished oil painting in Brett's Harley Street studio where it was completed in time for the 1884 Academy Summer Exhibition.

MacLeod’s Maidens, Skye

Senior valuer Sarah Williams with MacLeod’s Maidens, Skye by John Brett. The large-scale oil painting sold for £35,000 at Richard Winterton.

After selling to Hirst, the painting remained in his collection until he died in 1927 and then with his widow until her own death in 1944. The contents of their home were subsequently sold at auction where the picture at Wintertons is presumed to have been among the 1000 lots.

While it is not known how or when it was acquired for The Grange, it remained with Coopers until Fred died in 1990 and then was kept by his wife Betty until she passed away earlier this year aged 92, which precipitated the sale of the house’s contents at the recent auction.

Brett’s painting, which was simply titled MacLeod’s Maidens, Skye, was the largest painting in the Cooper collection. Charles Brett said: “It is very beautiful and it was wonderful to see it after it had been unaccounted for since it was originally sold 140 years ago.”

Still housed in its original frame (typical of those made for the artist by Dolman & Son of New Compton Street, Soho), it was offered as the last lot of the day on May 20. It duly drew strong interest especially against the attractive estimate with bidding in the room, on the phone and online. It was eventually knocked down at £35,000 to a London gallery on the phone.

The price was among the highest recorded at auction for a John Brett seascape.

Auctioneer Richard Winterton who was on the rostrum for the sale said: “We’re very grateful to Charles Brett for getting in touch with us and supplying extra information on his great-grandfather’s magnificent painting.

“The work proved to be a highlight among highlights, fetching an appropriately impressive hammer price for a marvellous large work of art. The exceptional provenance of the painting, which even included the original receipt when it was sold for the first time in 1884, meant it exceeded all our expectations.”

Charles Brett said: “I was delighted to see the work did so well in the sale.”

'Eclectic array

Overall the collection of over 150 lots from the Cooper collection raised a total of £85,000.

Other notable pictures from the consignment included a Dutch landscape with figures on horseback which was catalogued ‘in the manner of Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91)’ that flew over an £80-120 estimate and was knocked down at £4200.

Dutch painting

A landscape with three men on horseback catalogued as ‘in the manner of Aelbert Cuyp’, £4200 at Richard Winterton.

Meanwhile, the furniture section featured a late 19th century Louis XVI style kingwood, ebony and marquetry inlaid centre table, that made £1350, and a 19th century ebonized and gilt brass credenza, sold at £1300.

A further highlight was an Edward VII silver desk stand used by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) in 1923 on a visit to Wolverhampton Town Hall. It took £1050.

Richard Winterton said: “It was clear from his collection that Fred Cooper had a keen eye for classical pieces and a passion for history and the arts, as well as a keen sense of humour and unconventional attitude.

“The stunning and eclectic array of furniture, paintings and antiques he carefully curated were of wide and varied taste yet always erring on the side of quality. This quality has been underlined by the huge amount of interest this auction has attracted.”