He remains a tricky artist to define with his works sometimes interchangeably referred to as Vorticist, Modernist, Futurist or Abstract. A personal favourite is ‘Tubist’: due to the rounder forms widely present across his output (Roberts is said to have done for tubes what Picasso did for cubes).
First up at Bonhams was the earlier of the two works, Women Playing with Cats from c.1919. The 11½ x 8in (29 x 20cm) pencil, ink, watercolour and gouache had strong Vorticist undertones but also some nascent features of Roberts’ individual style.
The picture came from the same source as the David Bomberg painting that was the top lot of the sale. It was in excellent condition having been protected from light for many years – it was kept in a wardrobe and Bonhams’ director of Modern British & Irish art Matthew Bradbury had to unravel it from a blanket.
Estimated at £150,000-250,000, the picture was pursued by three determined bidders before selling to the trade at £260,000. This was the fourth-highest price for a work on paper by the artist but the best for a non-war subject.
The other Roberts picture was indeed a wartime work – a 12 x 16½n (31 x 42) pencil and watercolour from 1940 titled Munitions Factory. One of the lots from the estate of Lady Dugdale, it was a preparatory sketch for an oil painting of the same name now in the City of Salford Museums and Art Gallery (the first of three works commissioned by The War Artists’ Advisory Committee illustrating aspects of life on the Home Front).
Bradbury noted that this picture appealed to a different set of bidders compared to the earlier work. It sold above a £70,000-100,000 estimate at £160,000 to a private buyer from the Far East.