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A remarkable study executed in gold pastel by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) has set a new high for a drawing by the artist at auction.

The Angel of Death, believed to be the first gold pastel work by De Morgan to appear at auction, was offered at South Cerney saleroom Dominic Winter (19.5% buyer’s premium) on November 8.

The artist produced just a handful of works in gold, all bar one of which are held by the De Morgan Foundation in Surrey. The other study, Victoria Dolorosa, is in the Leighton House Museum in London.

Family consignment

The work formed part of a 16-lot collection of drawings and sketches by the artist. The group was consigned to the saleroom by a descendant of MDE Clayton-Stamm, a collector of Pre-Raphaelite art and its followers in the 1950s-70s and co-author of a book on Evelyn’s husband, ceramic designer William De Morgan.

Showing the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly De Morgan’s chief inspirer Edward Coley Burne-Jones, the 17 x 14in (44 x 36cm) gold pastel and black chalk on dark wove paper depicts a young woman on a rocky plinth supported by an angel carrying a scythe. De Morgan created it in 1885, two years before she married William.

Welcoming death rather than fearing it was a common theme in the artist’s oeuvre and she painted two more Angel of Death works, both executed in oil. They were produced either side of the drawing in 1880 and 1890 and later came into the possession of the De Morgan Foundation. (The latter oil was lost in 1991 when a fire raged through an art storage unit in London where some of its collection was held.)

Given that the gold pastel post-dated the initial oil, the auction house concluded that it was “quite certain” it was done either for the artist’s own pleasure, or as a gift or commission from an admirer of the oil painting.

Estimated at an attractive £8000- 12,000, it drew multiple bids from the phone, the room and the internet, including from several London dealers, before it was knocked down at £39,000. According to Dominic Winter specialist Nathan Winter, it was secured by a “particularly well-known agency” based in London, bidding on behalf of a private client.

“I think alluding to its market rarity [in the catalogue note] was a factor in its performance at auction,” said Winter. “The very fact that it is a gold drawing must also have drawn attention and excitement. It’s what you would call a ‘presentation drawing’ – a tour de force of the artist’s powers.”

The price is a significant leap on the previous high for an Evelyn De Morgan drawing, thought to be the £14,000 paid at Christie’s London in June 2015 for a black and white chalk on grey-brown paper study of Grief for the painting In Memoriam.

More De Morgan

The Angel of Death made up the lion’s share of the £63,790 total for the Clayton-Stamm collection at Dominic Winter. The rest of the group came from a large single folio of drawings, a portion of which had already been dispersed in the summer.

Condition was generally good, but a few of the larger drawings had damp staining to the edges.

Half a dozen UK-based private buyers absorbed all the material here.

Lot 40 featured 19 sketches and watercolours based on paintings by the Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance, including a detail from Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of The Magi and a pencil study of Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy. The £300-400 guide was easily bettered and it was knocked down at £4600.

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A male nude from a group of four sketches from Evelyn De Morgan’s time at the Slade School of Art – £1900.

A quartet of accomplished charcoal studies of male nudes, executed while De Morgan was a student at the Slade School of Art in London, was also on offer. The artist was one of the first three women to enrol in the Slade in 1873, after spending a short time at the South Kensington National Art Training School. The group sold for £1900, over three times the top guide.

Interest in De Morgan’s work has risen at the top end, where several high prices have been recorded in recent years. In May 2017, Sotheby’s New York set a new artist’s record at a premium-inclusive $360,500 (around £279,460) for De Morgan’s 1886 depiction of the water nymph Clytie. This was more than double what it had made when it last appeared at auction in 1991 at Christie’s London.

“Evelyn’s reputation for quite a while rested in the shadow of her husband, William, who was recognised much earlier,” said Winter. “But I think prices for her works are on the rise and I would say they are set to go a bit further.”