Christie’s (25/20/12/5% buyer’s premium) December 11 sale of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and British Impressionist art opened with a 26-lot collection of works consigned by the descendants of Burne-Jones.
The offering coincided with the retrospective currently showing at Tate Britain, the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in London for over four decades.
Known for his depictions of scenes from Arthurian legend and medieval romance, the Birmingham-born painter briefly acted as an apprentice to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, before forming part of a so-called ‘second wave’ of Pre-Raphaelites.
Deeply unfashionable during much of the 20th century, Burne-Jones suffered on the secondary market (like most of the Pre-Raphaelites) until his reputation was revived by the 1998 retrospective Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, which travelled from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Perhaps the most stunning example of Burne-Jones’ renaissance came in 2013, when Christie’s sold his intensely romantic watercolour composition Love among the Ruins for a multi-estimate £13.2m in London. This set a major record for the artist but was also a record sum for any British work on paper.
In a piece written for Christie’s website, Alison Smith, curator of the current Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain, said the artist’s surge in popularity can be seen in light of the success of fantasy dramas such as The Lord of the Rings and Games of Thrones. “They are pure Burne-Jones,” she added.
Market demand for the Pre-Raphaelite painter has caused a greater number of works to emerge from the woodwork, said Harriet Drummond, director of British drawings and watercolours at Christie’s.
“The good thing about a masterpiece such as Love among the Ruins doing so well is that it encourages owners of other first-rate pieces to bring those to auction, too. And that’s certainly what we’ve been finding. Now is a time of huge opportunity if you’re a Burne-Jones collector,” she said.
Hail the three Marys
As well as the collection from the artist’s descendants at Christie’s, two further works at Sotheby’s (25/20/12.9% buyer’s premium) were included in its equivalent sale on December 13. Together, they offered 28 works on paper, all of which got away to total £759,000.
Sotheby’s sold the most expensive, a religious depiction called The Three Marys, described in the catalogue note as a ‘fascinating triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelite wives and muses’.
Central to the 3ft 4in x 20in (1.03m x 50cm) watercolour with bodycolour and gum Arabic was the figure of Maria of Nazareth, modelled on the most famous ‘stunner’, Elizabeth Siddal.
The composition was probably originally painted as a cartoon for one of the stained-glass panels for St Michael’s and All Angels in Lyndhurst, Hampshire.
It had belonged to Dr Charles Bland Radcliffe, a friend of the Burne-Joneses who saved the artist’s life on one occasion when he almost choked after being taken unwell on Christmas Eve.
Following Radcliffe’s death in 1889 the watercolour passed to his wife who exhibited it at Burne-Jones’ memorial exhibition at the New Gallery in 1898. On loan to Tate Britain from a private collection between 2001-12, it was purchased by the vendor from The Fine Art Society in London. In its original frame designed by celebrated Arts & Crafts architect Philip Webb (1831- 1915), it tipped over top estimate to sell for £210,000.
The financial star of the group at Christie’s was a 14 x 10in (36 x 25cm) pencil, watercolour and bodycolour depicting the classical mythical figure of Danaë in a brazen tower.
As the legend goes, Acrisius, King of Argos, was warned by an oracle that the son of his daughter Danaë would slay him. He therefore shut her up in a brazen tower, but Zeus descended on her in a shower of gold and she bore a son, Perseus.
Burne-Jones probably used William Morris’ Earthly Paradise as the source for this subject and he returned to it a number of times, although he rarely depicted Danaë imprisoned in a tower.
Estimated at £40,000-60,000, it was knocked down for more than double the top guide at £135,000, making it the most expensive Burne-Jones drawing of this subject to sell at auction by some margin.
The other six-figure work from the group was a study for the left-hand section of a larger watercolour, Love disguised as Reason, dated 1870 and now in the South African National Gallery, Cape Town.
The 13 x 7¼in (34 x 18cm) pencil, watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gold and touches of gum arabic on paper took £130,000 against the same guide.
The collection also featured many private drawings and sketches intended for the artist’s granddaughter Angela Mackail (later the novelist Angela Thirkell). Among the highlights here was a humorous sketch titled School for Dragon Babies, 1884, which took £9000 against a £2500-3500 estimate.
Millais' own act of kindness
Strong bidding also emerged for a portrait of a young John Wycliffe Taylor at the age of five by fellow Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais (1829-96).
Offered at Christie’s 20 years after it had sold in the same rooms for £85,000, it was secured over top estimate at £130,000.
Taylor was the son of the playwright Tom Taylor, editor of Punch from 1874-80 and an early champion of Millais’ work.
The 14 x 10in (35 x 27cm) oil on panel was painted to fulfil a promise that Millais made to Taylor before John was born; that if he ever had a son, Millais would paint the child in return for Taylor’s ‘many an act of friendly kindness’.
Leading the charge for female artists was Laura Knight (1877- 1970), one of the more bankable artists of her generation whose secondary-market prices have risen considerably in the last two decades.
She was given special attention in the sale at Sotheby’s where 10 pictures by her were offered, including scenes of circus performers and gypsies, dancers and studio life, with all bar one getting away.
The star was a large 5ft 2in x 4ft (1.57 x 1.22m) oil on canvas depicting a scene in the wings of a theatre, Motley, Preparing for her Entrance, which came from the family of H Earl Hoover, the Chicago vacuum-cleaner magnate, and was being sold at auction for the first time. It tipped above top guide to sell for £160,000.
A portrait of the artist by her husband Harold Knight (1874-1961) was offered from the same source and sold for an estimate-busting £70,000.
Fountain view shoots away
Sotheby’s sale was led by Neo-Classicist painter John William Godward (1861-1922). At the Fountain was recently rediscovered after more than a century in a private collection in Sweden. According to Sotheby’s, the work epitomised “the languid glamour of Godward’s best work with carefully rendered textures of soft fabric, cool marble and warm living flesh”. It got away on bottom estimate at £300,000.
Drawing more bids was David Roberts’ (1796-1864) expansive cityscape of St Paul’s, Somerset House and Temple, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862.
Acquired by the vendor for £16,000 at Phillips London in 1980, it proved a shrewd investment when it sold comfortably above top estimate for £205,000 – the most expensive London view to sell at auction behind the topographical Middle Eastern landscapes for which Roberts is best known.