Buoyant results at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams (all 25/20/12.5% buyer’s premium) indicated that the top end of the Mod Brit market has kept pace with results in 2016.
That was a bumper year when private collections, such as the Bowie/Collector sale at Sotheby’s and the Cyril Reddihough collection at Bonhams, broke new ground.
This year’s small, cherry-picked evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s took in just over £18m hammer from 60 lots (not far off last year’s equivalent of £19.8m).
It was not all plain sailing, however. The market showed its picky side on occasion: most notably when two of three major paintings by LS Lowry from the collection of a European family failed to get away at Sotheby’s. They were compositionally rather awkward and, coupled with some juicy guides, failed to ignite interest.
In general, the quality of consignments was high, with fresh-to-market material in good supply and plenty to whet bidders’ appetites, while global interest was strong – a good sign if the market is to remain consistent.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), one of the big-hitters of Mod Brit art, topped the price list at Christie’s on November 22.
The oil formed part of Spencer’s Beatitudes of Love, a series of grotesque and comic husbands and wives which the artist painted after the breakdown of his second marriage in the 1930s.
The sixth of eight works in the series, the 2ft 6in x 22in (76 x 56cm) oil on canvas, Consciousness, depicted (according to Spencer’s own writings) a dress maker and grocer’s assistant.
For more than a decade it had hung in the Junior Common Room at St John’s College, Oxford, before it was bought by the vendor in 1966.
It was knocked down on low estimate at £1.3m (£1.5m with premium). The price is some way off what Sotheby’s achieved in the Evil/Frost collection – the landmark auction in June 2011 that set the pace for Spencer’s art at auction. At that time Beatitude 8: Worship, a larger and busier canvas dating from 1938, sold for a premium-inclusive £3.84m, a sum that has yet to be bettered for a Beatitude painting.
In a strong field at Christie’s, British pop art by star names achieved a good return for both fresh-to-market lots and those returning to auction.
Among the latter was Peter Blake’s (b.1932)Little Lady Luck from 1965, bought at Christie’s London in June 2000 for £77,000 by the artist, interior designer and restauranteur Michael Chow.
Although it failed to meet its £600,000-800,000 guide, the £580,000 hammer price was a meaty return on its previous result and, with premium added, is a new artist’s record at auction, surpassing the premium-inclusive £662,500 paid at Christie’s London in June 2015.
Decorated around the frame with deliberately kitsch and throwaway mass-produced objects, the small-scale, 2ft 9in x 14in (84 x 35cm), cryla and collage on board forms part of Blake’s defiant portraits of male and female wrestlers.
A multi-estimate sum was also bid for a study by fellow pop pioneer Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) for his major 1958 painting $he. The 10 x 7in (25 x 17.5cm) mixed media work, which had never been offered at auction before, doubled its top estimate to sell for £360,000.
Another record-breaking price emerged for founding Pop Art member Pauline Boty (1938-66). Bum dates from 1966 and had come from the estate of theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who had originally commissioned the 2ft 6in x 2ft (76 x 61cm) oil on canvas for his erotic cabaret Oh! Calcutta.
It sold for £520,000, well up on the previous high of £40,000 achieved at Sotheby’s London in 2014 for Untitled (Landscape with Rainbow).
Another new high at Christie’s was achieved for a work on paper by Barbara Hepworth (1903-75).
Duo-Surgeon and Sister, taken from her famous series of so-called Hospital drawings, was painted in 1948. It took £370,000 against a £200,000- 300,000 guide.
It was a particularly strong example from the series, which was compiled over a two-year period, from 1947-49, when Hepworth was invited to observe numerous operations first hand. She noted at the time the “beauty of purpose and co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life”.
In all, she produced around 80 works – executed in ink and chalk, pencil and oil paint on board.
This example, which had come from the collection of James Oswald Fairfax, bettered the previous high of £260,000 for a similar blue-hued Hospital drawing set at Christie’s last year.
As well as the record-breaking £1.89m canvas Troops Resting by CRW Nevinson (1889-1946), which grabbed the headlines at Sotheby’s (see ATG No 2319), the sale featured another hotly pursued Nevinson.
Offered as the next lot was Looking Down on Downtown, a work dated 1920 depicting New York, where the artist found fresh inspiration after the war. No doubt spurred on by the triumph of the previous lot, it was pursued to £425,000 against a £100,000- 150,000 guide – the second-highest price for the artist at auction.
Elsewhere in the sale, a market-fresh study by Henry Lamb (1883- 1960) of Bloomsbury Group member Lytton Strachey took £95,000 against a £40,000-60,000 guide.
Dated 1912, the 17 x 11½in (43 x 29cm) watercolour and pen work was a preparatory sketch for a large portrait, showing the writer and critic in a languid pose, his long legs draped across the floor. It follows the £80,000 paid at Sotheby’s Bowie sale last year for a charcoal study of Strachey drawn a year later, in 1913.
Paintings by Winston Churchill (1874-1965), arguably the most successful amateur artist on the secondary market, continue to sell strongly. Two works were included at Sotheby’s, both fetching multi-estimate sums.
The more expensive of the two was Landscape with Two Trees painted in 1922, which sold for £490,000 against an attractive £100,000- 150,000 estimate. The 2ft 1in x 18in (61 x 45cm) oil on canvas of an unknown location, possibly around Bordeaux, was given to the family’s nanny, Maud Elgie, and descended through her family.
Attracting the publicity, however, was Churchill’s The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell, which the auctioneers believe to be the last picture the great man painted. Dated c.1962, three years before Churchill died, it was painted in a far more abstract style than his other canvases, with the fish depicted through broad brush sweeps of orange impasto. Consigned from the family of Churchill’s bodyguard, it sold for £290,000 against a £50,000-80,000 guide.
The buyer of a 1913 drawing by William Roberts (1895-1980) of a bustling Billingsgate Market generated strong competition at Bonhams.
Dating from 1913, the 18 x 15in (46 x 38cm) pencil, pen and ink work was created during Robert’s formative years as a student when he was beginning his shift towards Vorticism.
It depicts market traders and fish porters carrying heavy loads and wearing the ‘Billingsgate Bobbin’ – a flat-topped hat made from built up layers of thick leather.
The work on paper had been part of a six-drawing commission of London markets for Sir Cyril Butler, a founder of the Contemporary Art Society and a commissioner in the Ministry of Food, but was one of only two that were realised. The other, Leadenhall Market (1913), is in the collection at the Tate.
Last offered on the market in the 1960s, this sought-after drawing sold for £130,000 against a £30,000-50,000 estimate to an overseas buyer on the phone.
It is the second strong price for a work on paper by Roberts in the last 12 months, following the £310,000 taken at Christie’s last November for a First World War sketch titled The Leave Train.
Bonhams’ Mod Brit art sale on the same day was led by a small Hepworth sculpture that went above estimate, selling at £210,000.
Mother and Child, a 5in (13cm) wide ironstone work on a stone base, was carved in 1934 and came from the collection of art critic Herbert Read. The 66-lot sale totalled £1.80m, with 70% of lots sold.