The latest picture sale at Oxford auction house Mallams (22.5% buyer’s premium) had a certain ornithological bent with modern and traditional bird studies providing a contrast in terms of their differing treatment of the subject.
The highest price on July 10 came for Etourneau Bleu (Blue Starling) by Simon Bussy (1870-1954), a painting from 1942 that drew strong competition.
The French painter came to London in 1901 and later became a key associate of the Bloomsbury Group (he married Lytton Strachey’s sister Dorothy in 1903).
The work on offer was an example of the animal pictures that the artist referred to as “portraits”. Bussy’s animal studies were often in pastel and made from life at London Zoo. He produced these works from 1912 onwards and described them as “poetic compositions” for which he removed anything he regarded as “trivial” to provide “further clarity, precision and purity”.
The Mallams lot was a 9¼ x 7¼in (24 x 19cm) oil on canvas signed with the artist’s initials and had provenance to the Paris dealership Galerie Charpentier. It came fresh to the market from a local house in Oxfordshire.
The trademark style, subject and bright colours lent it substantial appeal to the artist’s followers on both sides of the Channel. Bidders responded in force to the attractive £3000-5000 estimate and nine phone lines were booked. After a significant competition, it was knocked down at £19,000 to a UK buyer.
The price not only surpassed the sum made by the last comparable work on offer in the English regions – the larger Bird of Paradise on a Branch from 1948 that sold for £16,000 at Sworders of Essex in July 2018 – but also stands behind only a small handful of animal studies by Bussy that have made more at auction.
In terms of the more traditional ornithological pictures at Mallams, a group of four works by George Edward Lodge (1860-1954) was consigned from a deceased estate and also pitched at there-to-be-sold estimates. Offered as three separate lots, they all drew strong contests.
Lodge was, in some ways, an old-school sportsman – a taxidermist and falconer – but was also somewhat ahead of his time in terms of his work in wildlife conservation and protection of nature reserves.
His obituary in The Times described him as “one of the finest bird-artists this country has ever produced”, pointing to his skill at “depicting his subjects among their natural surroundings and to make them look alive”.
Birds of prey were his great speciality and uppermost among the group at Mallams was a signed 10¾ x 8in (27.5 x 20.5cm) watercolour and bodycolour of a kestrel. The bird itself was well conceived and executed with typical precision which, when added to the good condition, made it an attractive proposition at a £300-500 estimate.
It was sold for £4000 to a buyer who had also bought the previous lot – a pair of 3in x 8in (7.5 x 20.5cm) watercolours of a falcon on stand that made £3000 (estimate £1000-1500).
Also commanding a strong competition was A Hawk for the Bush estimated at £80-120. The pencil sketch of the bird from four different angles measured 9¼ x 6¾in (23.5 x 17.5cm) and sold at £1600 to a different buyer.
While examples of Lodge’s larger paintings have made over £10,000 in the last five years, these were solid prices for works on paper.
They indicate that the artist’s following not only remains active but may even have gained greater momentum since a charitable trust was established in 2007 to catalogue his works and bring attention to his life and art (see georgeedwardlodgetrust.co.uk).
A Myles Birkett Foster (1825-99) watercolour drew good bidding against a £300-500 estimate. One of the North Shields-born artist’s rustic English scenes showing two women gazing at a man on a horse by a trough, it was a colourful 5¾ x 8in (14.5 x 20cm) picture with a studio stamp and label for Agnews.
A bit saccharine to some minds, it nevertheless had its admirers and sold at £2200, a mid-range price for the small watercolour by the artist.
Another popular work on paper was a colourful historical scene by Henry Payne (1868-1940). It came from the same source as a group of 14 works by the artist that sold in the same saleroom in October 2017.
St Augustine preaching to Ethelbert, a 7¾ x 13in (20 x 33cm) watercolour, was a study for a fresco commissioned in c.1900 for Aston Boarding School in Birmingham.
A member of the Birmingham School of artists who were greatly influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, Payne was well regarded for interior decoration and stained-glass designs such as his work on the chapel at Madresfield Court.
This picture was a known work, having featured at an exhibition at Birmingham’s City Museum and Art Gallery and also illustrated in a recent publication on The Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts, of which Payne was a member.
The subject relates to the 6th century king of Kent who ruled at the time St Augustine arrived as a missionary and was, according to Bede, the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity.
Estimated at £300-500, it was bid to £3200 – the highest price at auction for some time for a work on paper by the artist, although behind the £17,000 achieved by a study for his seminal work sold The Enchanted Sea at Christie’s back in 1989.