Two 1950s canvases by Richard Smith (1931-2016), the Letchworth-born artist who bridged the gap between Abstraction and pop art, attracted a surge of bids in south London.
The 4ft 1in x 6ft (1.25 x 1.84m) oil on boards depicting vigorous, sloping brush strokes of reds and blues were offered on the market for the first time in a buoyant Modern & Contemporary British Art auction at Roseberys (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) on February 11.
Signed and estimated at £4000-6000 each, they had been cut into two parts (presumably by the artist himself) and came to the West Norwood auction house via the descendants of the London architect Margaret Dent.
Both were early works dated to the late 1950s, a few years before Smith hit the big time with his canvases containing upscaled every-day imagery in boldly coloured geometric shapes.
Noplace, signed and dated 1958, soared to £82,000 where it attracted competition in the room before it was knocked down to a UK buyer on the phone.
This work appeared (in one piece) at the Arts Council of Great Britain exhibition Abstract Impressionism in 1958 which brought together artists from England, France and the US whose work represented both Abstraction and a painterly interest in colour, touch, light and space.
Smith received the Harkness Fellowship the following year, enabling him to leave London – where he had been sharing a studio with Peter Blake – and travel to the US.
The second oil, a red Abstract composition that appeared not to have been exhibited, sold to the same buyer for £24,000. It was dated a year earlier to 1957 when the artist graduated from the Royal College of Art.
The pair were among 390 lots on offer at Roseberys and made leading contributions to the sale which bettered predictions to post a premium-inclusive £531,000 with 85% of lots sold.
Other 20th century works made by artists early in their careers emerged as highlights.
An oil on canvas portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen was offered with an attribution to his daughter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), then around 23 years old. Just before the sale the cataloguing was upgraded to an autograph work with the picture formally titled Portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen and dated c.1902-03.
Richard Shone, author of The Art of Bloomsbury (1999), provided the auction house with the key information for what became a £16,000 picture. It had been estimated at £1500-2000. Measuring 2ft 4in x 2ft (67 x 60cm), it is Bell’s earliest-known portrait painting.
Sir Leslie Stephen, father to Bell and Virginia Woolf, was an eminent man of letters and the earliest editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.
The portrait is similar to another (on loan to the National Portrait Gallery) painted by George Frederic Watts who was both a family friend and a significant influence on Bell’s early work.
Lowry nude drawing
The trend for early works continued with a winning mid-estimate bid of £18,000 for a signed and dated drawing of a female nude by LS Lowry (1887-1976), completed when he was studying at the Manchester School of Art.
The Salford artist created the female nude drawing at an evening life-drawing class in 1914 under the tutelage of the French painter Adolphe Valette. “I cannot over-estimate the effect on me of the coming into this drab city of Adolphe Valette, full of French Impressionists, aware of everything that was going on in Paris,” he said of his teacher.
According to the inscription, it took 45 minutes to complete.
It was one of five early works on paper by Lowry in the sale from a large cache of drawings by the artist offered at auction in April 2018 at Bentleys in Kent from a private collection in Salford. Perhaps on account of some bullish pricing and swift return to sale, the group had a mixed reception, with two unsigned drawings failing to get away at around £8000-12,000 each.
'Whitechapel boy' Bomberg
A double-sided oil on paper, dated 1920, by the artist David Bomberg (1890-1957), best known as an influential member of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, was knocked down for a multi-estimate £6500.
The 18 x 13in (45 x 33cm) post-war oil on paper, titled Festivity to one side, is one of some 50 imaginative compositions painted c.1920 as the artist began to adopt a more figurative style. Another work from the same period, a 19 x 21in (48 x 54cm) watercolour gouache titled The Tent Family, was pursued to £5800, nearly double the top estimate and an improvement on the premium-inclusive £4375 it made on its last auction outing in 2016.
There was also a small painting by one of Bomberg’s teachers, the Camden Town Group painter Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Mackerel, a widely exhibited still-life of fish on a plate with provenance stretching back to 1904, was possibly painted when the artist was staying in Dieppe with a divorced fishwife called Madame Villain.
It was not unknown on the secondary market either and had made a premium-inclusive £13,750 on its last auction outing in May 2012 at Bonhams in London. Here it sold towards the bottom estimate for £6500.
Old Master inspiration
Two pictures by Modern British artists directly inspired by Old Masters were taken to multi-estimate sums. A 16 x 20in (41 x 52cm) black and brown chalk over pencil by Leon Kossoff (1926-2019), the Jewish artist best-known for his cityscapes of London, sold for a multi-estimate £6200.
Titled From Rubens and including an inscription – for Naomi with love from Leon and Peggy [Kossoff’s wife] – it was one of many the artist made in response to and literally in the presence of Old Master oil paintings; in this case a painting by Rubens.
In 1917, the artist Roger Fry (1866-1934) organised Copies and Translations of Old Masters, an exhibition at the Omega Workshops to which he invited artists associated with the workshops collective to contribute. Fry encouraged young artists not to make perfect copies of the originals but rather to learn new things while making a loose copy.
The Roseberys auction included one of Fry’s own contributions, a 19 x 18in (48 x 46cm) oil of St Francis giving his cloak to a destitute nobleman based on a fresco in Assisi by Giotto. It was taken to £2900, nearly double the top estimate.
The pick of the sculpture was a 10 x 16in (26 x 40cm) bronze by the relatively obscure Estonian British sculptor Dora Gordine (1895-1991) that attracted multiple bids and eventually sold for £5000 against a £700-1000 estimate.
Titled Sea Rose, it was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1950 and was once owned by journalist and avid art collector Nancy Balfour.