Normally the viewings that take place in Cardiff for Rogers Jones’ (22% buyer’s premium) biannual Welsh sales are festive occasions with wine being swilled, familiar faces sharing a joke or two and a harpist playing.
But the one that took place in the run-up to the latest sale on March 21 had notably less ceremony and even a sense of foreboding as the coronavirus crisis took hold.
Auctioneer and partner Ben Rogers Jones admitted that if the auction had been scheduled a day later the firm would have moved to online and phone bidding only.
The sale took place 48 hours before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK shut-down and, even still, the auction house used social media and an appearance on Welsh language television to encourage bidders to bid from home.
Only a handful of bidders were in the room on the day (all observing the saleroom’s measures with regards to social distancing and hygiene), but happily the level of remote bidding did much to help proceedings.
This came as relief to Rogers Jones, who said that this sale was actually one of the firm’s most interesting and varied offerings so far and, despite the obvious challenges, the selling rate remained high with a hammer total of £302,000 raised from 420 lots.
Welsh leading light
The top lot provided a useful chunk of the total and also demonstrated that the continued demand for the giant of the market Sir Kyffin Williams (1918-2006).
The depiction of sunset over an Anglesey farmstead was an intriguing work. It was familiar in terms of style, technique, subject and composition but the bright yellow colouring made it somewhat different from the normally muted green and brown tones used by the leading name in 20th century Welsh art.
The 23½in (60cm) square oil on canvas, Evening Llangwyfan, had the trademark thick impasto applied with the artist’s trusty palette knife.
It was a ‘known work’ – exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1988 and illustrated in an article about Sir Kyffin in the publication The Artist in January 1993 (a copy of which came with the lot).
Also in its favour commercially, it came to auction with good provenance having been given to the vendor directly by the artist and retained a label on the verso with artist’s address in Anglesey.
Estimated at £30,000-40,000, it sold on top estimate to a private buyer based in England who had a long-held ambition to own a Williams sunset. The price was among the highest for the artist ever recorded at Rogers Jones.
While this was the obvious star of the show, it was one of five oils by Sir Kyffin at the sale, of which three sold for a combined £64,000.
While works by Sir Kyffin feature in every Welsh sale at Rogers Jones, one of the rarer sights in the saleroom this time was a watercolour showing bomb damage in Swansea during the Blitz.
The artist was Will Evans (1888-1957), a local painter who was also a lecturer at Swansea School of Art. During the Second World War he documented the destruction of the city by the Luftwaffe in February 1941.
Swansea was targeted heavily due to its strategic importance with its port, docks and the neighbouring oil refineries.
A group of Evans’ Blitz paintings are now at The Glynn Vivian Gallery, a public museum in Swansea. Such pictures have only occasionally appeared at auction, although two sold at Peter Francis in March 2017 for £1600 and £750 apiece.
The 18 x 21¼in (46 x 54cm) watercolour at the current sale came to auction from a Cardiff vendor.
It benefited from being a well-known view, showing the debris on Wind Street looking up across Castle Square to the High Street.
Estimated at £1500-2000, it drew good competition and was knocked down at £4600 to an online bidder from a military history organisation. The price appears to be an auction record for the artist.
Londoner's love of Wales
Elsewhere at the sale, a George Chapman (1903-93) painting drew solid bidding against a £1000-1500 estimate.
The artist was born in London but, after visiting Wales for the first time in 1952, the principality became his main focus and scenes of the valley towns such as this 3ft 1in x 3ft 2in (93 x 97cm) oil on board were a common part of his oeuvre.
An unsigned work, it depicted a head and figures standing with rooftops and aerials in the background. It was eventually knocked down at £4300, a decent sum for the artist, although slightly shy of the £5000 fetched by a more finished street scene at Rogers Jones in November 2016.
The first 38 lots of the Rogers Jones sale were works consigned directly from a member of the Vivian family – the famous industrialists from Swansea who developed a copper smelting and trading business in the 19th century.
The items included archives, personal items, prints, albums and even a 19th century marble bust of Sir Richard Hussey Vivian (1775-1842) in the classical style that sold at double the top estimate for £1200.
Among the pictures doing well was an early-19th century primitive school oil on canvas of a lady on a horse alongside a child with a pony.
The Tudor-style mansion was believed to be Singleton Abbey, the seat of the Vivian family that today houses the administration offices of Swansea University.
Estimated at £300-400, it sold at £900.
Ben Rogers Jones said: “I am pleased and relieved to say that the appetite for Welsh art, history and culture from mainly the Welsh public shone through at this sale – 84% of the lots sold with 80% sold selling online or to phone bidders.
"Unsurprisingly there was a record number of phone bidders for us for any Welsh Sale in the last 20 years and over 500 bidders on thesaleroom.com.”