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The portrait of the novelist EM Forster by Roger Fry – £260,000 at Bonhams

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Estimated at £30,000-50,000, it came to auction from the estate of the late Illinois collector Patricia Nichol Barnes.

The combined appeal of the artist and sitter – two of the most compelling British intellectuals of the period – ensured it met with strong demand. After prolonged competition from interested parties in the saleroom, on the phone and online, it was knocked down at £260,000.

Although Bonhams would release no buyer details, ATG understands it sold to an overseas buyer who outbid dealers Philip Mould and Dr Robert Travers of Piano Nobile.

The latter, who was bidding on behalf of a UK museum, described it as an "exceptional picture" and believed it to be the only known portrait of Forster by Fry.

Mould, who was also hoping to repatriate the work, said: "For literary portraiture it is the perfect storm – a compelling subject, a dynamic characterisation, and an emotive date for artist and subject. I would have loved to have help repatriate it after its period abroad – Forster deserves to return to his home country."

The portrait led Bonhams’ Modern British and Irish Art sale on July 1 and the sum represented a giant leap for Fry prices.

It was over eight times the previous auction record, which had been jointly held by a portrait of Lalla Vandervelde that made £30,000 at Chiswick Auctions in December 2019 and another of Edith Sitwell that made the same hammer price at Sotheby’s in March 2006.

Dating from 1911, it was painted when Fry and Forster were neighbours in Surrey and was painted at Fry’s house in Guildford. The two men had become close friends some years before – Forster had included a character called Rankin based on the painter and art critic in an early draft of his 1908 novel A Room with a View.

According to Fry’s biographer Matthew Sturgis, the picture came about as “an upshot of their happy friendship” and was painted at a time when the artist, “steeped in the Parisian experiments of Post-Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists”, was striving to “introduce something of their daring simplification and anti-naturalism into his own art".

The faceting and angularities of Forster’s head (which Lytton Strachey called “triangular”) in the portrait were believed to be derived from Picasso’s 1909 portrait of Clovis Sagot, a work which Fry had included in the seminal exhibition dedicated to Manet and the Post-Impressionists held in London in 1910-11.

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'Triangular head': a detail of the Roger Fry portrait of EM Forster that sold for £260,000 at Bonhams.

Earlier in 1911, Fry had been in Turkey with Clive and Vanessa Bell and had sent home a mass of textiles, mostly from Brusa, some of which featured in the portrait. 

Bloomsbury record

Forster wrote to his friend Florence Barger that in the picture he appeared to be “a bright healthy young man, without one hand, it is true, and very queer legs, perhaps the result of an aeroplane accident, as he seems to have fallen from an immense height onto a sofa”.

Forster, who actually bought the picture after it was shown in Fry’s solo exhibition at the Alpine Club Gallery in 1912, later gave it to Barger and it remained in her family for over 50 years without being shown in public. In 1984 it passed through London dealer Anthony d’Offay and it came to Bonhams from the Barnes estate.

The price for the portrait raises the bar for the Bloomsbury school at auction.

The previous saleroom high for a Bloomsbury picture was the £170,500 including premium paid for a Duncan Grant (1885-1978) portrait of the mountaineer George Leigh Mallory in June 2016, although ATG understands that at least one Bloomsbury work has changed hands for more privately.

Bonhams director of Modern British and Irish art Chris Dawson said: “We are delighted with the result. Roger Fry’s portrait of EM Forster is an extraordinary and important work and it’s fitting that it set a new world record for the artist at auction.”

He added: “Most of the bidding was remote but the sale was well attended given the circumstances with up to 20 people in the room and all actively bidding as they genuinely wanted to be there.”