The artist’s work has occupied a secure spot in the market’s second tier for around a decade, although it is still unfamiliar to many outside Mod Brit circles.
Not much has been recorded about his life. It is known that Sheffield-born Steel studied at the Sheffield School of Art alongside his younger brother, the watercolourist Kenneth Steel (1906-70).
He held his first one-man exhibition in his home city at the Graves Art Gallery in 1941, going on to exhibit at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy and The Leicester Galleries in London.
After the Second World War, he settled in Ashdon in Essex, where he died aged 60.
Steel’s canvases are characterised by heavy texture, built up with successive layers of paint.
His most popular subjects for collectors today are the harbours and coastline of Cornwall and East Anglia. At a Sotheby’s auction in London four years ago, a buyer paid £9750 (with premium) for a view of Mousehole harbour near Penzance.
“Steel has come of age,” said auctioneer and valuer Daniel Wright from Colchester saleroom Reeman Dansie (20% buyer’s premium). “His work used to be very buyable 15 years ago. Since then prices have risen significantly.”
Steel’s relatively short life, strong Mod Brit style and a career that peaked during the mid-20th century have all contributed to the appeal of his work on the secondary market.
At the Reeman Dansie auction on February 12-13, the trio of c.1950s mixed media works – a St Ives coastal scene and two woodland landscapes – sold against appealingly low guides for a combined £13,100 to the same trade buyer in the room.
The well-preserved works had been cherished by the vendor’s mother, who had been friends with the artist. She purchased two of the three works in the 1950s, while the third was a gift from the painter.
The rectangular 7½ x 19in (19 x 48cm) Cornish scene, St Ives Harbour, was purchased from The Leicester Galleries in the mid 1950s. Its commercial subject helped propel it to four times its top guide, where it was knocked down at £6000.
The smaller works – Woodland Fantasy and Essex Woodland, 1953-56 – sold for multi-estimate sums of £4100 and £3000 respectively.
Flourishing Indian art
India is another country with a flourishing market for 20th century home-grown talent.
Against the backdrop of a thriving economy in which a newly moneyed class has begun to invest in art, prices for established names – such as those from the avant-garde Bombay Progressive Art Group and the Bengal School of Art – have been rising.
At Reeman Dansie, strong bidding from India emerged for The Lovers, an early 20th century watercolour catalogued as ‘Indian School’ but bearing an amended catalogue attribution to Sailendranath Dey (1891-1975), also known as Kshitindranath Majumdar.
A significant artist of the Bengal School and a student of its founder, the renowned Indian painter Abanindranath Tagore, Dey considered art as a form of devotion. His ethos rejected the academic art styles promoted by the West and was inspired from Indian literary, religious and other narrative traditions.
Estimated at £200-300, the 12 x 7in (31 x 18cm) work was underbid by bidders from India but was eventually knocked down to a buyer in the UK for £11,000.
The watercolour formed part of a consignment from a London collection that had passed by descent from Montague Fordham, the English agriculturalist involved in the Arts & Crafts movement who became the first director of the Birmingham Guild of Handicrafts. (The same source yielded another ‘sleeper’ in this auction: a signed Japanese cloisonné vase that sold for £28,000 against a £70-100 guide – see News, ATG No 2380.)
Noteworthy provenance was also included with a miniature 5½ x 8in (14 x 21cm) watercolour and gouache of a ‘pre-Raphaelite girl in a landscape’ by the Italian painter Ricciardo Meacci (1856-1940). Meacci is thought to have come into contact with Pre-Raphaelites Edward Burne-Jones and Charles Fairfax Murray when the pair visited Siena in the 1870s.
Consigned in a handsome carved and gilded arched frame from a local collection near Ipswich, it was inscribed to the verso: Diana Cinderella Mildred Bowes Lyon (daughter of John Bowes Lyon), April 9th 1924. John Bowes-Lyon was the brother of the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and therefore an uncle to Queen Elizabeth II. This royal link no doubt helped it sell above a £100- 200 guide for £4500 to a UK buyer.
Elsewhere in the sale, a portrait of a scribe was in need of serious restoration. However, its condition did not deter bidders.
The severely ripped canvas (which had been relined making it harder to determine a date), was catalogued as ‘18th century Continental School’ and drew multiple bids before it was knocked down to a UK buyer for £3800 against international bidding.
Consigned from a local collection, it is possible bidders detected an earlier date or a specific artist’s hand in the work.