Steamer with Fish by Alfred Wallis

Steamer with Fish by Alfred Wallis, £60,000 at Lay’s.

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Branfield wrote of several biographies of some of west Cornwall’s most celebrated artistic figures, and together with Pep spent 50 years building a collection of both pictures and ceramics.

Offered in a dedicated sale of 191 lots at the February 29 auction, the room was packed for the event and the auction house had to clear space to make room for extra chairs.

Branfield, now well into his 90s, decided to sell the collection following Pep’s death last year. He watched the auction at home with his family, witnessing all the lots selling on the day and raising a total of approximately £800,000.

The collection included works by the likes of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), Bryan Pearce (1929-2006), Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947) and Charles Walter Simpson (1885-1971), all of which drew interest well above their predicted levels, helped not least by their market freshness, good provenance and attractive estimates.

Exhibition pictures

Many works that the Branfields acquired were loaned to museum shows over the years. These included a trademark Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) boat painting titled Steamer with Fish, a work executed on cardboard using house paint. It was, in fact, one of the best known pictures in the collection.

Measuring 9 x 11.5in (23 x 29 cm), it was an example of the St Ives artist’s paintings on reclaimed materials – the self-taught Wallis used cardboard, plywood and odd pieces of paper for his works as he developed his familiar primitive style. His pictures have been much copied and faked over the years, meaning a rock-solid provenance is all-important.

This painting here was previously in the personal collection of Henry ‘Gilly’ Gilbert, the owner of the Wills Lane Gallery in St Ives, who had a number of original early works by Wallis hanging at his home in the Cornish fishing town. While Gilbert had apparently told the Branfields the work was ‘not for sale’ on every visit to the gallery, he eventually relinquished and told them one day in 1993: ‘You can have it if you want’. The Branfields paid £6000 for it.

The picture was exhibited at The Bigger Picture exhibition Penlee House Art Gallery in 2015 but was also familiar to the artist’s followers as the image had been reproduced as a greetings card to help raise funds for the building of the Tate St Ives.

The signed work suffered from a little creasing and various marks and stains. While normally in the art market this might have deterred interest, the fact that these features were likely present when the work was created meant they did not seem to affect it commercially – they may even have been an added attraction.

Estimated at £12,000-18,000, the lot drew bidding on commission and online, as well as in the room. Lay’s said a number of leading dealers were bidding but they were eventually eclipsed. After the bidding reached £32,000, it came down to a battle between one of the interested parties on the internet and a telephone bidder. It was eventually knocked down at £60,000 to the latter.

The price was one of the highest for Wallis at an auction outside London – the highest is the £80,000 for Trawler Passing a Lighthouse that sold in the same saleroom in October last year.

Major record

Midge Bruford portrait

Lizzie Annie Hocking by Midge Bruford, £25,000 at Lay’s.

Another of the lots bringing strong competition was small portrait by Midge Bruford (1902-58) that drew no fewer than six phonelines and multiple advance bidding. The saleroom said it was probably the most ‘watched’ lot online.

Signed and dated 1930, the 14 x 10in ( 36 x 26cm) oil on panel was a rare work on the market by the painter who was part of the same artistic circle in Cornwall as Dod Proctor, Harold Harvey and Richard Weatherby (to whom she was engaged for several years and shared a studio).

Bruford died from a mysterious disease, thought by her family and friends to have been caught from a monkey she rescued from a travelling organ grinder.

The portrait here depicted Lizzie Annie Hocking, the daughter of Bruford’s cleaning lady who grew up to become a cook in the Lamorna area. It was not stated how much the Branfields had paid for it, but it was thought a sum probably in the low hundreds at the very most.

Admired for its compositional quality with the sitter portrayed in a direct frontal pose and with a powerful gaze, not to mention its striking colouring, it was exhibited as part of the travelling Women Artists in Cornwall 1880-1940, held at Falmouth Art Gallery, Plymouth Art Gallery and latterly Penlee House Art Gallery in 2002.

Estimated at £1500-2500, it drew intense competition and was eventually knocked down at £25,000 to a private local buyer. The price was a major auction record for Bruford, easily surpassing the previous high of £6000 for another portrait titled Violet picker that sold at Lay’s in 2017.