A single-owner collection, including significant pieces of sculpture from the Modern British canon, totalled just under £380,000 in a near sell-out auction in Oxfordshire.
The 298 lots for sale at Swan Fine Art (20% buyer’s premium) in Tetsworth on September 3, had been acquired since the 1990s by the late Andrew Burt (1945-2018).
An actor from West Yorkshire, Burt became a household name in the early 1970s playing the role of Jack Sugden in the ITV soap Emmerdale. He later appeared in other television series including Warship, The Voyage of Charles Darwin, and the lead role of King Arthur in The Legends of King Arthur.
Burt’s passion for collecting paintings and bronze sculpture – especially the works of English artist Michael Ayrton (1921-75) – was shared only with his closest friends. He sourced much of his collection, which included one of the largest assemblages of works by Ayrton in private hands, from galleries and auctions in the UK and North America.
Ayrton, who was primarily known for his art although he was a critic, broadcaster and novelist too, had a particular obsession with the myths of ancient Greece. Among his enduring subjects was the story of Daedalus, who sculpted wings for his son Icarus and made the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur.
Among the 130 Ayrton lots in the sale, four sculptures dating to the 1960s were inspired by the story of Daedalus. Daedalus Wingmaker (1960), a 22in (56cm) wide bronze showing the figure seated crafting one of Icarus’s wings, was knocked down at £11,500 – the most expensive among the quartet. Burt had acquired the piece (made in an edition of six) from Bloomsbury Auctions in 2013 for £9500. Daedalus at Cumae (1961), also one of an edition of six, sold just below expectations at £14,500. Burt had paid more than double this sum to secure it at Christie’s in 2016.
A small 15in (40cm) high textured bronze cat by Robert Clatworthy (1928-2015), one of over a dozen sculptures and works on paper by the Somerset-born sculptor, sold to a buyer on thesaleroom.com for more than five times the top guide at £8500. Clatworthy made highly textured animal bronzes using quick-drying plaster, which required him to work rapidly. Other bronzes made with the same technique, including a bull and horseman, were also keenly contested and sold for multi-estimate sums.
As one might expect to find in a collection of Modern British sculpture of this nature, there were works by a contingent of 20th century sculptors who had lived and worked in St Ives breaking new ground in British and European modernism.
The sale contained around two dozen polished bronze creations by John Milne (1931-78), who moved to St Ives in the early 1950s to work as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth. Among Burt’s purchases was the 23in (60cm) high abstract form Gnathos (1967), made in an edition of three, which had cost him £900 at a Christie’s sale in 1998. Estimated in Tetsworth at £2000-4000, it was knocked down for £9000, while a chalk sketch for the sculpture made £600. Aten (1972), a polished bronze creation made in an edition of six in 1972, was knocked down at £7000.
As well as Hepworth, Milne also worked alongside the prominent St Ives sculptor Denis Mitchell (1912- 93). Endillion (1971), a 13in (33cm) high bronze made in an edition of seven, was the only entry by Mitchell. Bought for £950 from Phillips in 1998, it made £7500 here. Elsewhere, a figurative bronze titled Divers by Ralph Brown (1928-2013) made £2400 (estimate £500-800) and a maquette for Figure in a Thicket (1956) by Leslie Thornton (1925-2016) took £3200 (estimate £300-500).
Over half of the sale was dedicated to Burt’s collection of oils, watercolours and prints.
Gethsemane (1944), one of Ayrton’s dark and turbulent oils from the Second World War, was the financial highlight selling for £14,000 against a £8000-12,000 estimate. Showing a huge log across the foreground with the naked figure of Christ perched on a rock, the 2ft x 20in (64 x 52cm) oil on board had passed through London dealership Agnews in the 1940s and later sold at Sotheby’s in 1985 for £4500. Like a few items in the sale its early return to market proved difficult: it had been among Burt’s last purchases, acquired from Christie’s in March last year for £21,000 (with fees).
A popular lot was Ayrton’s melancholic ink wash portrait of his friend the painter John Minton (1921-75) whom he first met in Paris in the late 1930s and painted on several occasions. It was a similarly wistful portrait of Minton executed in oils from 1941 sold in London at Christie’s in 2013 for a premium-inclusive £76,275, the highest price a painting by the artist at auction.
With provenance to the Christopher Hull Gallery in London, this 16 x 20in (40 x 50cm) ink sketch tipped over top estimate to sell for £2900. Ayrton and Milton also collaborated on the costumes and scenery designs for John Gielgud’s acclaimed 1942 production of Macbeth, a drawing from which sold in the sale for £800.
Works on paper by other names primarily known for sculpture included a nude pencil drawing by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) titled Reclining Negress (one of many nude drawings he made of women of colour in the late 1920s) at £2800 (£2000-3000); Blue Head (1951), an aquatint etching by Geoffrey Clarke (1924-2014), made £530 (£100- 200); and Winter Solace (1971), an artist’s proof lithograph by Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), took £2400 (£2000-3000).
Configuration Blue Red (1960), a strong coloured abstract painting by Frank Avray Wilson (1914-2009), made £2800 (estimate £800-1500) from a buyer on thesaleroom.com. The oil on board, 16 x 6in (40 x 16cm), came with provenance to the Redfern Gallery where Avray held seven one-man shows between 1957 and 2002.
Contemporary lots were led by Maggi Hambling’s (b.1945) portrait of Oscar Wilde (1998), created the same year she divided critics with the unveiling of her public monument to Wilde in London. Reflecting her rising status on the art market, the watercolour ink gouache was eagerly contested to £2400 (estimate £200- 300). This was well above the £375 (with fees) that it made at Bonhams, Knightsbridge, in 2011.