“I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paintbrush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower… to me they are the secret of the cosmos.”
For the artist Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981), who was fascinated by light and colour throughout her life, flowers offered a variety of shape and luminosity that she found in very few other subjects.
A rare opportunity to own one of Nicholson’s early still-lives came up in Crewkerne, Somerset, where a simple composition of poppies against a plain background from 1930 was offered at the Lawrences (25% buyer’s premium) saleroom.
Executed in the artist’s typical faux naive style, it came to the October 11 auction from descendants of Lady Horlick, the first wife of Sir Ernest Horlick whose father co-founded the famous malted drink. She had bought the painting from Nicholson’s first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London nearly 90 years ago.
Both private and underbidders pursued the lot beyond hopes of £20,000-30,000 to £48,000, where it was knocked down to an anonymous buyer.
The 20in (50cm) squared oil on canvas had suffered a little from heat and damp during half a century in Australia but concerns about condition problems “proved not to be a deterrent” said Richard Kay, director and picture specialist at Lawrences. A comparable example from c.1928, in better condition and marginally larger, sold at Sotheby’s last month for £81,250 (with fees).
All's well that's Elwell
Selling for a more modest price at Lawrences was a still-life by the 20th century Yorkshire artist Frederick William Elwell (1870-1958), an English painter better known for his interiors and figurative subjects. A possible Royal Academy exhibit from 1955, the signed 19in x 2ft (49 x 60cm) oil, Geraniums, took £3800 against an £800-1200 guide.
These still-lives were part of around 350 picture lots offered in Lawrences’ substantial week-long series of autumn fine art auctions. Sale figures for the pictures were decent with just under £315,000 worth of material changing hands and a sell-through rate of 80%. According to the auction house, this was 10% more than the comparable sale held this time last year with a 55% higher total.
As reported in News Digest, ATG No 2414, the surprise seller of the day was a picture by Hilda Davis (fl.c.1935-60), a little-known artist who had never made more than about £900 at auction.
Depicting the treacherous broadcasts of William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – in 1940, the work vastly exceeded any previous auction price by her and made £26,000 from a local Somerset collector, a huge increase on a £500-700 estimate.
Elsewhere, a 15in x 2ft (39.5 x 60cm) oil on canvas of the Dorset coast near Lulworth by Roger Fry (1866-1934) was consigned for sale with other pictures from a deceased’s estate that totalled over £57,000.
The picture is believed to have been painted in 1912 when Fry was spending time with friends in Dorset, staying in the village of Chaldon Herring near Lulworth. It was gifted by Fry to a member of the Warre family, forming part of the Warres’ large collection of Bloomsbury art, and was exhibited at The Leicester Galleries in London.
Retaining its exhibition frame, Lawrences discovered it had later sold at Christie’s in 1992. At the Crewkerne auction, a buyer from the London trade paid more than double expectations to secure it at £11,500.
Eager bidding emerged for a 19th century Indian watercolour of a vulture from the so-called Company School, which were made by artists working in an Indo-European style for patrons in the British East India Company during the 18th-19th centuries.
The 12 x 10in (30 x 25cm) detailed watercolour was drawn for Arthur Annesley, 11th Viscount Valentia, and more recently had been in the collection of Stuart Cary Welch, an American scholar and curator of Indian and Islamic art.
The auction house said it received “many enquiries” from India but in the end it sold to a bidder from the London trade who paid £8000, nearly seven times the top guide.
Company School watercolours have been known to fetch large sums at auction. In 2014, Bonhams achieved £458,500 (with fees) for a watercolour of an Indian fruit bat by the Mughal-trained artist Bhawani Das.
It came from the well-known Lady Impey series – a large-scale set of studies commissioned by the wife of Sir Elijah Impey, who was the East India Company’s Chief Justice of Bengal.