James Dickson Innes (1887-1914) is a name unfamiliar to most. Yet the artist, who painted in France and his native Wales in the decade before the First World War, has been lauded in some quarters as the missing link between 19th and 20th century British art.
Innes started his artistic career painting in the traditional academic manner, but a trip to France in 1908, and a meeting with Henri Matisse, dramatically changed his style.
Inspired by Post-Impressionists and Fauvism, he became a pioneer in Britain of en plein air landscapes, combining hot and bold colours with decorative pattern.
He exhibited with the Camden Town Group in 1911 but, like his friend Augustus John, was only a fringe member. In pursuit of romantic and artistic freedom, the pair subsequently spent several seasons painting in north Wales, specifically the Snowdonian mountain Arenig Fawr.
The body of over 100 pictures that resulted became the subject of a 2011 BBC documentary, The Mountain That Had to Be Painted.
Innes’ flourishing artistic career did not last, however, and he died at the age of 27 from tuberculosis.
Despite his prolific output, works by the painter crop up rarely at auction – Art Sales Index lists only 149 entries since 1956.
“Innes has been lauded as the missing link between JMW Turner and David Hockney
Innes pair emerges
So it was with some excitement from admirers of Innes’ work that a pair of his landscapes was consigned to Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (20% buyer’s premium) on April 11 in Exeter. Both were in good original condition and estimated at a mouth-watering £1000-1500 each.
They had passed by descent from the eccentric Irish prankster and poet William Horace De Vere Cole (1881- 1936). His most famous escapade came in 1910 when he fooled the captain of the Royal Navy warship HMS Dreadnought into taking himself and a group of his friends, including Virginia Woolf, for an Abyssinian delegation. It became known as the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’.
Grey Mediterranean, offered first, was likely to have been painted during the artist’s time in France.
The strong colours, seen in the expanse of blue sea and mountains beyond, were first used by Innes in Collioure in the south of France in 1908. The 11½ x 15in (29 x 39cm) oil on canvas sold to a private collector for £15,500.
But the real fireworks came in the next lot, The Fairy Mountain. The slightly smaller undated 8½ x 12in (22 x 31cm) oil on board of a craggy mountainous landscape, evokes Innes’ best-known Welsh views. It sold at £41,000 to an academic collector.
Daniel Goddard, BH&L picture specialist, said: “It was last recorded in an inventory in the 1920s, and its whereabouts had been unknown since then. That, I think, excited people who were engaged with this artist.”
According to Art Sales Index, the price surpasses the previous premium-inclusive record set in March 2015 at Christie’s South Kensington for Camden Town: Night Scene (1907), bought by Noël Coward in 1952.
Five top auction prices for James Dickson Innes
1. The Fairy Mountain, 8½ x 12in (22 x 31cm) oil on board – £41,000 hammer at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood, April 11, 2017.
2. Camden Town: Night Scene (1907), 14 x 18in (36 x 46cm) oil on canvas – £37,500 (inc buyer’s premium) at Christie’s South Kensington, March 19, 2015.
3. Valley with Arenig on the left, 9 x 13in (23 x 33cm) oil on panel, and Mount Arenig, North Wales, 13 x 17in (34 x 44cm) – £31,700 each (inc buyer’s premium) at Christie’s London, November 16, 2007.
4. Afternoon, Ronda, Spain (c.1911), 12 x 16in (30 x 40cm) oil on panel – £30,000 (inc buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s London, November 13, 2012.
5. Bala Lake (1911), 19in x 2ft 5in (48 x 74cm) oil on canvas – AU$64,000 (£24,500) hammer at Sotheby’s Melbourne, July 19, 1992
Performing well elsewhere in the sale was a trio of later 20th century rugged and rural landscapes in oil by Irish painter Maurice Canning Wilks (1910-84).
Prices for Wilks have steadily risen over the years, from around £500 immediately following his death, to £1000-5000 today.
The group, which had come from the same source, bettered their guides to total £3170. The top work at £1350 was Evening Light, Near Letterfrack, an expansive Irish scene painted in County Galway measuring 17 x 2ft 11in (44 x 90cm) and estimated at £600-800.
Another highlight was a 3ft x 2ft 4in (91 x 71cm) Heywood Hardy (1843-1933) oil, which was snapped up by a trade buyer above estimate at £9500. Although not one of the artist’s preferred hunting subjects, A Chance Meeting (1903) was a well-composed work depicting a horseman with a spaniel conversing with a country girl by a spring. Unseen on the market for some time, it was bought by the vendors’ grandfather at London dealers Frost & Reed.
The sale was topped by an elegant 19th century portrait of a lady, thought to be Therese Freifrau von Bethmann, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73), which sold at £155,000 to a UK trade buyer and featured in ATG’s online report.