A notable selection of traditional works on paper were among the items that caught the eye of bidders at Woolley & Wallis’ (25% buyer’s premium) latest picture sale. Three lots in particular drew strong interest and sold at multiple-estimate sums.
The Salisbury saleroom’s picture specialist Victor Fauvelle said “small groups of watercolours were commanding a lot of interest at this sale”, adding that this was something following on from other recent auctions where he noted improved action in this area.
“We tried to pitch things modestly as the market is very sensitive to anything overcooked. At this sale some of the watercolours got a much better reaction compared to many of the oils.”
One such work was an attractive Italian landscape by Jean Achille Bénouville (1815-91) estimated at £1000-1500.
Depicting a view of Tivoli with the ruins of Hadrian’s villa and the spray from the falls of the Aniene river visible in the background, the 12½ x 18in (32 x 46cm) watercolour heightened with white gave a good demonstration of the French artist’s compositional rigour. The artist had a highly academic approach to preparation and study and this picture “had great depth to it”, according to Fauvelle.
Bénouville experimented with various treatments of light and colour during his trips to Italy which partly explained the tonal quality of this work.
Signed and dated 1859, it came to auction from a private collection which provided 25 works on paper to the sale. More than half had been purchased through three leading London dealers: the Fine Art Society, Richard Green and, especially, Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, which had exhibited this watercolour at its gallery in 1986. A collection stamp also indicated earlier provenance to Althorp, no less.
Works by Bénouville are fairly rare on the market. Most tend to emerge in France but a handful appear at auctions in the UK every year.
Some have fetched prices at the £500 level, while the highest sum recorded on the Art Sales Index is £25,000 for a larger oil on canvas depicting the Ponte Nomentano in the Roman Campagna which sold at Sotheby’s in London back in June 1998.
In good condition to boot, interest before the sale duly yielded solid competition at the auction on March 7. It was eventually knocked down to a dealer at £11,000 – a strong sum given that a comparable watercolour of Tivoli, but with two small figures appearing in the composition, sold at €5625 (£4050) including premium at Christie’s Paris in November 2007.
Another work on paper bringing demand but by an earlier artist was a drawing attributed to the Italian Baroque master Salvator Rosa (1615-73). It came from the Henley home of late political historian Dr Peter Mangold, the bulk of whose art collection was auctioned in a £736,000 Woolley & Wallis sale in November.
The 11in (28cm) square pen and brown ink and charcoal on laid paper depicted a classical subject – Apollo and Daphne with the river god Peneus, Daphne’s father – and it arguably contained slight hints of the Daphne figure in the great Bernini sculpture of this subject in the Villa Borghese in Rome.
Despite some yellowing to the edges, it was deemed a fluid drawing and a number of bidders responded well against a £2000-3000 estimate. It sold at £7800 to a private buyer.
A third work on paper generating strong competition was an 18th century British picture that was part of a consignment from a private collection in St John’s Wood, London. This first tranche of eight traditional works on paper will be followed by a larger group of around 120 modern French works which will be offered in June.
Here, View of a cascade at Wookey Hole by John Webber (1750-93) was strongly contested against a £700- 1000 estimate and was knocked down to the trade at £13,000.
The artist can command much higher prices – especially for his topographical scenes of the South Seas thanks, in part, to his established place in history as the draughtsman on board the Captain Cook’s third and final voyage, famously recording his death in Hawaii.
However, when it comes to more run-of-the-mill watercolours by Webber, prices of under £5000 are not uncommon. Indeed, some followers believe they represent very good value, especially since there is a sense that his English landscapes were often more successfully conceived than his pictures of the tropics.
The example in Salisbury was a 11½ x 16¼in (30 x 41cm) sketch executed in grisaille washes and signed and dated 1788.
An attractive subject with the added bonus of a known location – the limestone caves at Wookey Hole in Somerset which are now a visitor attraction – it benefitted further from being fresh to the market, having been acquired by the vendor from The Leger Galleries in 1992.
The £13,000 price was strong for an English subject by Webb and was another result that would have given encouragement to supporters of the traditional watercolours market.