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'The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda' by David Bomberg – £640,000 at Bonhams.

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Bonhams’ (27.5/25/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) latest sale of Modern British art, for example, recorded 223 registrants, the highest for the department save for a much larger auction in June 2016 (an auction that included over 40 prominent works from the CS Reddihough collection).

The November 18 sale was staged during the latest lockdown in England. Not only did it have a higher number of registrants per lot, but about half of the bidders were new to the auction house.

Bonhams director of Modern British & Irish art Matthew Bradbury pointed to growing online activity from clients stuck at home as well as people seeing art as a good investment.

“What really struck me was that clients new and old were prepared to spend large amounts of money without viewing the lots,” he said in reference to the recent auction.

The event was held behind closed doors at Bonhams’ New Bond Street rooms. While clients were not allowed in, some vigorous competition on particular lots came via the internet, absentee commissions and 15 members of staff manning the phones.

“It might sound like a cliché but demand is certainly outstripping supply at the moment and sourcing works is the main challenge,” said Bradbury. He added the department was issuing quotes to clients on a daily basis but admitted that some vendors were feeling a little uncertain about the market and price levels currently. He was pleased, however, with the 70 lots gathered for the current sale, which he described “compact and curated”.

Bardbury believes that next year will witness “real movement in a positive way”, adding: “I’m not always the most optimistic person, but there is a whole load of material out there waiting to be offered.”

Encouragingly for the Mod Brit market in the here and now, a number of the leading works at this sale generated significant overseas interest from Europe, the US and Australia, as well as a smattering of bidding from Asia.

Bomberg view of Spain

The top lot, a view of The Old City and Cathedral, Ronda, Spain by David Bomberg (1890-1957), sold to a US collector in the mid-west. Although not the first piece of Mod Brit art to enter the collection, Bradbury was not aware that the buyer had a taste for Bomberg before.

“This was the most important Bomberg we’ve offered so far,” he said. “A few oils have emerged in last few years but his last major Spanish painting on the market was in 2007.”

That work, East Valley, Cuenca: Afternoon from 1934, sold at Christie’s for £690,000.

Here, the identically sized 20½in x 2ft 2in (52 x 67cm) oil on canvas painted the following year had many similar features, including the evocative tones and brushstrokes applied in thick impasto to the rooftops.

Further to its desirable style, subject and date, it also had provenance going back to one of the artist’s most important patrons, Asa Lingard, the prominent Bradford businessman who had helped provide the artist with funds to undertake his move to Spain in the first place.

The picture had appeared only once before at auction, back in 1957 at Cirencester saleroom Jackson-Stops where it was purchased by the vendor’s family, and it had not been seen publicly for over 50 years.

The estimate was set at £400,000-600,000. After the US buyer saw off competition from a UK agent bidding for a client, it sold at £640,000. The price was the sixth highest for Bomberg and fourth highest for a Spanish scene (source: Artprice by Artmarket). Bradbury said that the fact that these works from 1930s Spain represented a turning point in Bomberg’s life and career meant that it “fully justified its very high price”.

Maugham by Kelly

A work going in the other direction – one that was consigned from the US but sold to a UK buyer – was a portrait of the writer William Somerset Maugham by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly (1879-1972).

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'A Glass of Sherry in the Studio', a portrait of William Somerset Maugham by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly – £75,000 at Bonhams.

The strong reaction for this painting of a literary giant followed portraits of EM Forster and WH Auden also bringing high demand and setting record prices for Roger Fry and Maurice Field respectively at Bonhams this year.

Indeed, the consignment was received “on the back of the Forster result” said Bradbury, although he did not specify if it came from the same vendor.

The 2ft 4in x 2ft 8in (72 x 81cm) oil on canvas laid on board was again an instance of an artist painting a close friend. Kelly and Maugham met in Paris in the early 1900s and maintained a special acquaintance for over 50 years.

Maugham helped to fund Kelly’s first trip to Mandalay in 1908 – a visit intended to help him get over an unhappy love affair but one that turned into a career-defining experience. He also based several characters on the artist in his novels (including Frederick Lewson in arguably his most important book Of Human Bondage).

Kelly also used Maugham frequently as a subject, painting him on 18 occasions including the 1911 portrait The Jester, now in Tate Britain which is arguably his finest portrait.

This example was from the early 1930s and depicts Maugham with a glass of sherry in Kelly’s studio. The Bonhams catalogue suggested it may have been ‘both sequel and companion to The Jester as he exhibited both portraits at the Royal Academy’s 1933 summer exhibition.

Kelly later reworked the picture slightly, adding a detail or two and subtly adjusted the sitter’s expression before exhibiting it again at the RA in 1943.

Following its second outing, Kelly sold it to Maugham’s most important American patron, the stockbroker Bertram E Alanson. After Alanson’s death in 1958, the work’s whereabouts remained untraced until it recently reappeared.

The estimate was £30,000-50,000, a level in line with the previous highest prices for Kelly – the highest being the €82,000 (£55,225) for Saw Ohn Nyun from 1932 at Adam’s of Dublin in October 2006. Incidentally, that portrait of the Burmese princess appears in the background of the current picture.

On the day, the portrait of Maugham sailed to £75,000, going to a private buyer in the west of England – breaking the artist’s record that had stood for 14 years.

International interest

While this portrait seems to have appealed primarily to a domestic audience, other lots at Bonhams drawing international interest included a view of a church by Sir William Coldstream (1908-87) that went overseas. It came from the estate of Lady Cylla Dugdale (1931-2018), an avid collector of 20th century British art and a talented painter herself.

Six of the eight lots from the consignment sold, contributing a solid £330,250 (including premium) to the bottom line.

Overshooting a £4000-6000 estimate, Coldstream’s painting of Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead was knocked down at £35,000.

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'Emmanuel Church, NW6' by Sir William Coldstream – £35,000 at Bonhams.

Pictured in both Bruce Laughton’s William Coldstream (2004) and Peter Rumley’s recent William Coldstream: Catalogue Raisonné (2018), the study of the church where the funeral of Coldstream’s father, Dr George Coldstream, would be held in 1950 seems to have been painted from a vantage point of 87 Marlborough Mansions, Cannon Hill, where he was living at the time.

The 8 x 10in (21 x 26cm) oil on board from 1947 was acquired by Lady Dugdale from The Mayor Gallery in London but had earlier provenance to art historian and ‘Cambridge spy’ Anthony Blunt.

Elsewhere at the sale, two works by Duncan Grant (1885-1978), a still-life and a portrait, came from different sources but sold to the same London dealer.

The former was a 16½ x 12¼in (42 x 31cm) oil on canvas with a good early date of c.1916. Signed with the artist’s initials, it depicted a compotier with fruit – an object that was itself something of a favourite at Charleston (the East Sussex home and meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group).

Given to Grant by Barbara Bagenal (née Hiles), it appears in numerous still-lifes by both Grant and Vanessa Bell, including the former’s major painting of the dining-room at Charleston from c.1918 depicting Bell painting the compotier herself, a key picture in the Bloomsbury canon and now in Ulster Museum, Belfast.

Estimated at £20,000-30,000, it was knocked down at £40,000.

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'Still life with compotier and glass' by Duncan Grant – £40,000 at Bonhams.

A later work, although still with a good c.1928 date, was a portrait of Peter Morris – one of a number of paintings Grant made of his friend and lover (for a brief period) during the late 1920s. Again, the presence of a particular object in the painting may have raised it commercially, at least to a moderate extent.

In the 2ft 6in x 20in (76 x 51cm) oil on canvas depicted the subject sitting on a green upholstered wingback chair that formerly belonged to fellow artist Walter Sickert. The chair, along with a similarly upholstered chaise-lounge, came into Grant’s possession when he took over Sickert’s Fitzroy Street studio.

Estimated at £10,000-15,000, the work sold at £18,000, a decent sum, albeit not the highest for a portrait by Grant.