The Picture Sale, which took place at Mallams (24% buyer’s premium) on October 17, totalled £300,000 with 85% of lots sold.
A watercolour landscape by Francis Towne (1739-1816) led the auction.
It was inscribed to the back of the mount The Vale of St John in Cumberland/looking towards Grassmere [sic]/the distance Helvellyn/Drawn at 1 o’clock/by Francis Towne/light from the right hand. Signed and dated 1786, it reflected the artist’s taste for classical vistas as well as his characteristic use of strong line and flat, economical paint application.
Commercially, Towne was somewhat overlooked in the 19th and early 20th centuries but, after being reclaimed in the 1950s, he is now a highly sought-after name.
This work had a provenance back to The Fine Art Society in 1959 and was later sold at Sotheby’s to Agnews in 1992, where the owner of the estate who consigned it to Mallams had purchased it. At this auction, it sold to the trade for £22,000 against an estimate of £6000-8000.
Welsh estate works
The Towne picture was one of 25 oils and watercolours from a Welsh estate. They were assembled in London by a woman who bought works at various leading galleries, including Agnews, Colnaghi and Spink, before taking them with her when she moved to Wales.
It was one of two primary estates that featured in the 452-lot sale, the other one comprising 40 pictures from a Cotswold source.
These two collections had “positive knock-on effects” for the whole auction, according to Rupert Fogden, head of paintings, prints and manuscripts at Mallams, but it was the Welsh collection, all of which sold, that was the stand-out group.
“These were in immaculate condition, nicely presented with labels on the back and beautiful examples of their kind,” said Fogden.
A Paul Sandby (1731-1809) black and red chalk drawing of a servant with a horse from the estate bore a label for an Agnews exhibition in 1988 where it was purchased.
Inscribed Henry Gilder, servant to Thos Sandby drew remarkably, the 7 x 4½ in (18 x 11cm) picture reflected the importance of a good name and solid provenance when it was knocked down to a private buyer at £14,500 – over 17 times the bottom estimate.
Some of the appeal here may have been the family connection, as Sandby is believed to have learned drawing from his artist brother, Thomas.
But most important, according to Fogden, was “provenance and names” which helped certain works “take off” throughout the sale.
Lively interest also emerged for a trio of watercolours by Towne’s student John White Abbott (1763- 1851). His works are stylistically similar to those of his teacher, though in his day Abbott was the better known. These days his works go for lower prices, but his pen and watercolour scene Near Holne on the Dart with Benshetor in the distance was hammered down for £7200.
Elsewhere in the sale works without a firm attribution proved difficult to get away.
“If there’s nothing more definite than a ‘circle of’ or ‘attributed to’, that’s a bit of a gamble,” said Fogden. Such was the case with a View on the Dort with Dordrecht in the Distance (estimated at £8000-12,000) catalogued as ‘attributed to Hendrik de Meyer’, which failed to sell.
The same was true of an indistinctly signed oil of exotic birds in a tropical landscape (estimated at £4000-6000) by the ‘circle of Jakob Bogdani’ and A romantic coastal landscape (estimated at £3000-5000) by a ‘follower of Claude-Joseph Vernet’.
However, the rule of names did not hold true for a 3ft 3in (98cm x 1.14m) oil on canvas, the 18th century English school double portrait catalogued simply as The Blue Boys.
“You don’t often see pictures like this that are of lovely quality despite there being no inkling of sitter or artist,” Fogden said. “It was a really charming portrait and a great decorative image.”
Thought to have been passed down through the family to the vendor, there was no information about artist, sitters or any circumstance of its creation. Nevertheless, it was knocked down to the trade at £16,000.
Another picture that bucked the trend was a watercolour of two children by a cottage, catalogued as only ‘Circle of John Sell Cotman’. It soared past its top guide of £300, selling to the trade for £4800.
The market for John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) tends to be driven by subject, date and condition. At this sale the top-estimated lot was his watercolour of The North Side of South Gate, Yarmouth, Norfolk which sold short of its £10,000-15,000 estimate for £8000.