The scenes of an idyllic rural world held particular resonance for Victorians caught up in the rapid spread of urbanisation.
Chief among those who followed in the pastoral tradition were The Ancients, the circle of artists formed c.1824 at the home of Samuel Palmer in the Kent village of Shoreham.
They cultivated an archaic style and were all devotees of William Blake, whose 1821 woodcuts of Virgil’s Eclogues were described by Palmer as “perhaps the most intense gems of bucolic sentiment in the whole range of art”.
Demand for 19th century pastoral prints on the secondary market stems from a small but active circle of domestic specialist dealers and collectors. The value for such prints has remained relatively steady since the market was created some four decades ago, with the majority of auction prices in the low four figures for works in good condition by established names.
Nathan Winter of Cirencester book specialist Dominic Winter (20% buyer’s premium) describes it as “a thriving niche field” where there is “plenty of enthusiasm despite its academic and old-fashioned taste”.
Stored in boxes
His sale on March 7 included a small group of well-preserved prints that had been stored in boxes for many years and inherited by a single vendor. The collection contained etchings by Palmer and Edward Calvert in addition to 20th century examples by Frederick Landseer Griggs, who followed in Palmer’s pastoral tradition.
The group’s top performer was Edward Calvert’s (1799-1883) The Chamber Idyll, a diminutive 1½ x 3in (4 x 7cm) etching regarded as the artist’s ‘masterpiece’.
Although the 1831 woodblock was described by Palmer as "a sensuous vision of a bucolic honeymoon", Calvert printed few proofs during his lifetime, the original blocks remaining in his studio until first published by his son in the edition of 1893.
“The fact that prints printed by Calvert basically don’t exist – there may have been one or two – only adds to the romance and value of his work,” said Winter.
It was secured via thesaleroom.com by a private collector over top estimate for £2900 and was underbid by the specialist trade.
Three private collectors and an Oxford-based gallery vied for Samuel Palmer’s (1805-81) The Bellman, depicting a lonely figure clanging his bell past houses in a village at moonrise. It was secured by the same private buyer of the Calvert etching at £2400, more than double its top guide.
A rarer lifetime impression of The Bellman bearing Palmer’s signature sold for £8500 at Sotheby’s sale of works from The Fine Art Society in February. However, this Cirencester print was one of the so called ‘trio’ impressions published in an edition of 60 by the Cotswold Gallery in 1926, after Palmer’s son supplied eight of his father’s uncancelled plates for printing.
Tanners from a friend
The published etchings coincided with the Victoria & Albert Museum’s seminal exhibition Drawings, Etchings and Woodcuts by Samuel Palmer and Other Disciples of Blake.
This major retrospective proved a seminal moment in the young life of Robin Tanner (1904-88), who went on to embrace the visionary tradition of Palmer and English neo-romanticism.
After completing his first etching – A Tithe Barn – that same year, Tanner increasingly focused on art and became part of the revival in English etching before the wider economic depression in 1929 caused the etchings market to crumble.
A 12-lot collection of Tanner’s early and later etchings opened a sale of modern and contemporary art at North Yorkshire saleroom Tennants (20% buyer’s premium) on March 2.
The group came with provenance to James Fairbairn of York who had been Tanner’s colleague and friend.
Tanner’s best-known etching Christmas led the way. The large 14 x 11in (35 x 28cm) final state etching from 1929 was knocked down to a UK private buyer on thesaleroom.com at £1800 against a £800-1200 estimate.
The rest of the group sold to a mix of private and trade buyers for a total of £8590.