“As an auctioneer I missed having the people in the saleroom, although we didn’t miss them in terms of prices.”
The Lyon & Turnbull (25/20% buyer’s premium) Scottish Paintings & Sculpture sale, headed by picture specialist and vice chairman Nick Curnow, was among the summer auctions posting strong results behind closed doors.
Turnout was low for the viewing in Edinburgh – the auction house’s first since lockdown began in spring – but the July 15 sale of 19th and 20th century artworks generated £425,000 from 103 lots. The unsold lots amounted to three.
“We normally have an 80% selling rate for the Scottish sale but this auction went to the next level,” said Curnow. Participants were almost exclusively private with around 500 international bidders and “only four or five works” going to the trade.
Fewer high-end lots featured than usual. Strict lockdown measures when the sale was being assembled and global economic woes causing potential vendors to hold back were factors.
Light on Colourists
The only notable entry among the Colourists – Scotland’s most cherished painters who are traditionally well represented in the specialist sale – was George Leslie Hunter’s (1877-1931) Street Scene, Largo, a small signed oil that sold above a £10,000-15,000 guide for £19,000.
“Yes, we were light on Colourists, but I think the prices would have been perfectly good had we offered more,” said Curnow.
“The public perception is we are in the middle of a crisis and this has a negative impact on consignors, but those of us who are involved in this marketplace know it is doing remarkably well.”
Curnow described the sale’s rarest work, an oil of Breton women by Robert Brough (1872-1905), as “almost a one-off” having handled only one other like it before.
A Scottish avant-garde artist, Brough’s promising artistic career was cut short when he suffered horrific burns in a train collision outside Sheffield and died a few days later. He was a protégé of John Singer Sargent, who rushed to comfort him in his final days and curated a memorial exhibition in celebration of his talent.
Breton Women by Street Light, a signed 10½ x 18in (27 x 46cm) oil sketch thought to date from c.1893, typified the bold brushstrokes and atmospheric quality found in his best works. It had featured in an Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museum exhibition devoted to the artist in 1995 and was making its auction debut in the L&T sale.
Estimated at £10,000-15,000, half a dozen bidders were in the mix, including one for whom Brough had been a recent discovery, before it was knocked down to a private buyer on the phone for £24,000. Only the artist’s large oil painting Breton Girl has made more at auction, selling at Sotheby’s in 1997 and 2002 for £44,000 and £40,000 respectively.
The same source also consigned a drawing titled Herd Girl executed in pastel by Brough. Admired for its harmonising tones and appealing subject matter, it tipped over top estimate to sell to a different buyer for £3600.
The market for the Scottish Victorian artist William McTaggart (1835-1910) is not as strong as it was two decades ago, but well-pitched examples still generate decent bidding.
The 2ft 2in x 2ft 3in (66 x 70cm) oil The Fleet Leaving Port Seton Harbour offered with a £10,000- 15,000 estimate was characteristic of McTaggart’s broad, expressive handling of paint and en-plein air technique. McTaggart sketched and painted Firth of Forth, the coastline encompassing Port Seton, many times, relishing the harbour, light effects and its distinctive brownish water.
This work was pursued by four bidders before it sold to a private buyer for a sale-topping £36,000.
Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935) is best known for the dramatic plein air scenes of sheep in snow that earned him the nickname ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’.
The Garden at Finzean, a small 18 x 12in (46 x 31cm) oil estimated at £6000-8000, showed another side to his art. Coming from a collection in Los Angeles, it depicted the colourful patterns of border flowers on a summer’s day at Finzean, the family estate in Aberdeenshire inherited by Farquharson in 1918.
It was much admired, trebling hopes to sell for £23,000 to become one of the more expensive non-wintry scenes by the painter to sell at auction. A comparable Finzean composition of border flowers, including canterbury bells and geraniums, sold at Cheffins in March 2016 for £14,000.
The unexpected top-seller among the later works was a vivid 19 x 11in (48cm x 27cm) oil on panel by Scottish-Italian Alberto Morrocco (1917-99).
The Kitchen Maid, painted in 1986 and with an old exhibition label for The Scottish Gallery, was one of many vigorous works the artist produced following his retirement as head of the school of painting at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. It flew past a £4000-6000 estimate to reach £24,000, a bullish price given pictures like this by Morrocco usually sell for around £10,000-15,000.
Buyers also snapped up conservatively estimated works by Robert Gemmell Hutchison (1860-1936) and Glasgow Boy artist George Henry (1858-1943).
Milk for the Kittens, a quintessential work by the former depicting a child feeding two kittens from a saucer, sold for a treble-estimate £15,000.
The Henry, an elegant autumnal scene titled Autumn by the Lake, Galloway, took £9000 (estimate £4000-6000).
The artist painted some of his most successful compositions in Galloway, having been encouraged to paint there by his close-friend and artistic collaborator Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933).
One of Hornel’s own paintings, a trademark composition of girls in flower-decked surroundings titled the Lily Pond (1919), took £8500 (estimate £7000-9000 .