In 1926, the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker shocked audiences in Paris when she cavorted across the stage wearing only a belt of dangling bananas.
Her ‘danse sauvage’ at the famous cabaret music hall Folies Bergère became an overnight sensation, epitomising Parisienne fascination with negritude in the early 20th century.
A striking oil painting of a black male sitter, dating from this period in Paris by Belle Epoque artist Albert de Belleroche (1864-1944), piqued the interest of several bidders when it went under the hammer in East Sussex.
Catalogued simply as a ‘half-length portrait of a nude black man’, the 2ft 6in x 20in (76 x 51cm) oil of the silhouetted figure sailed above the £400-600 guide to £7000 at Gorringe’s (21% buyer’s premium) in Lewes on September 25.
Gorringe’s auctioneer Clifford Lansbury said the sitter was identified after the sale by one bidder as a Folies Bergère dancer – possibly Feral Benga, a Senegalese entertainer of the 1920s and ‘30s. Like Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, the Welsh-born de Belleroche is known to have painted dancers, usually women, at the bawdy music hall during its glory years in the late 19th and early 20th century.
“To have such a strong portrait of a black man from that date is quite unusual. Add to that who he might be, and it was well worth the money,” said Lansbury.
The picture came to Gorringe’s with a collection of mostly unstretched canvases formerly owned by the painter’s son, William de Belleroche (1913-69), and consigned from the estate of his lover, the late Gordon ‘Andy’ Anderson. Once part of a much larger collection of art from the de Belleroche family, the 40-lot group sold to total just under £35,000.
A William Etty (1787-1849) nude, painted reclining against the artist’s trademark Indian-red backdrop, was among just a handful of works by other painters from the collection. The 18 x 23in (46 x 58cm) oil on canvas reflected the current lively demand for Etty when it was knocked down to a private buyer at £5500, seven times the bottom guide.
Elsewhere at Gorringe’s, Dorothea Sharp (1874-1955) topped the price list with one of her popular impressionistic depictions of childhood.
The 2ft 8in x 2ft 3in (81 x 70cm) oil on canvas of two children surrounded by goats on a sun-drenched cliff came from the collection of the artist’s niece and had not appeared at auction before. Against an appealing £10,000-15,000 guide, it sold to a phone bidder for £36,000 – a price in line with other works in this size and style. In the same week, Bonhams London sold a slightly smaller oil of children on a beach for £30,000.
Another market-fresh entry was a work by George Clausen (1852-1944), the artist who first exposed Sharp to ‘plein air’ painting. The 18 x 14in (46 x 36cm) oil on canvas study of a women’s head, in original, untouched condition, came from a local private source and sold to a UK trade buyer for £7000, more than double the top guide.
Drawing multiple bids from further afield were four Anglo-Indian botanic watercolours, painted in the southern Indian city of Madras during the mid 19th century. The appealing folio-sized 8 x 5½in (21 x 14cm) illustrations, inscribed with the names of various local plants and fruit, were knocked down to a specialist American buyer at £13,000, well in excess of the £1500-2000 estimate.
The works on paper section also yielded a five-figure sum for a pair of early 14 x 11in (35 x 28cm) pen and ink drawings by David Hockney (b.1937). Produced with a fine point pen in 1975, when the artist was senior costume designer at Glyndebourne opera house, the pair depict the characters of Nick Shadow and Anne Truelove from Igor Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress. The production was Hockney’s first foray into opera design.
Presented to the head of the wardrobe department at Glyndebourne at the time, these characterful works from early in Hockney’s career sold for £16,000 to a London buyer.