The 28 lots at the June 10 sale in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, comprised mainly pictures, although the consignment included a scattering of art books and even a Victorian mahogany chair painted with a panel of flowers that made £240.
All bar one lot from the group sold for a combined £40,390 hammer total. The best competition came for pictures selling below the £5000 level, demonstrating the developing interest but also the good value that is still evident for some slightly lesser-known artists in this sector.
According to his colleagues on Country Life, Venison was a kindly and self-effacing colleague. His obituary in The Times said he “resembled a delightful, inoffensive character from The Wind in the Willows, closer to Mole than Ratty”.
Good friend Morris
When he died in last year, he left behind a notable garden at his home in Hill House in Sudbury. It included different species of sternbergia collected in the wilds of Andalusia by his good friend, the artist-plantsman Cedric Morris. He also assembled a significant art collection.
The works at Sworders focused mostly on plants, his primary interest, or had connections to his native East Anglian more generally.
Venison had been a frequent visitor to Benton End, Morris’ former Suffolk home where he founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in 1968, and he had acquired a number of works by Morris himself.
Two Morris works from the Venison collection had sold at the Sworders in October last year, making a combined £28,000. A further example appeared at the current sale, the painting Senegalese Boy (see box on facing page).
While that picture sold slightly above estimate, a drawing depicting Morris by one of his pupils was also part of the Venison consignment here and drew even more vigorous bidding. Although it made a lesser sum, it made arguably the more impressive price especially for a seemingly quickly executed sketch.
The 8¼ x 5½in (21 x 14cm) pencil sketch by Kathleen Hale (1898- 2000) showed Morris in profile. It was dated 1944.
As a young artist in her 20s, Hale was part of the artistic circle centred around Fitzrovia but later she moved to Suffolk and took lessons during the Second World War from Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines at the school they founded in Dedham.
In a way the drawing represented the somewhat triangular relationship of the three artists – Hale had an affair with Lett-Haines, who himself was the partner of Morris for over 60 years.
Like many of the works from the Venison estate, it was given a temping estimate as it was clearly ‘there-to-be sold’. Here the pitch was £200-300 and, after a number of interested parties entered the bidding, it was eventually knocked down at £1700, the highest price for a pencil drawing by the artist at auction according to 'Artprice by Artmarket'.
A work by another artist who had been a student at the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing from 1937-40 also generated strong competition. Succulent on a Chair by Joan Warburton (1920-96), a 2ft x 20in (61 x 51cm) signed oil on canvas from 1966, was another work from the Venison estate.
The artist, who sometimes signed her work with her married name O’Malley, had painted an earlier still-life on the reverse – a pleasing depiction of a pestle and mortar, eggs and a wine bottle – giving the lot something of a ‘two for the price of one appeal’. However, in any case, the work was deemed to be a rare commercial opportunity by a number of parties, with the creative composition of the succulent spiky plant being enclosed by the chair’s frame lending it a poignant and striking appeal.
Warburton became an established name during the course of her career – she had around 10 solo exhibitions at galleries over a 20-year period and participated in mixed shows at the Royal Academy and Leicester Galleries – but her works have never had much prominence on the secondary market. Before this sale, only a couple of paintings had ever sold at auction for over £1000.
This one was estimated at £600- 800, a level no doubt guided by previous saleroom records but here bidders responded favourably to both the painting itself and also its good provenance. It was eventually knocked down to a trade buyer at £4200, a record for the artist according to 'Artprice by Artmarket'.
A further Venison lot going well beyond estimate was The Dog Show, a small print from 1929 by Eileen Lucy ‘Tirzah’ Garwood (1908-51), the wife of Eric Ravilious who has gained increasing recognition in her own right over the last few years.
While few of her works have appeared at auction before, commercially she shot to prominence in May 2017 when a painting of two donkeys in a stable made £24,000 at Cheffins’ sale of works from the collection of Cambridge County Council.
The 6¼ x 5in (16 x 12.5cm) wood engraving here was from an edition of 500 and easily surpassed its £150-250 estimate, selling at £2100 to a private London buyer. The price was well in excess of previous sums for this print at auction and suggested the 2017 result probably had a serious effect on the artist’s values, something that may well bring more works out of the woodwork.
Affordable for now
As Sworders’ picture specialist Jane Oakley said: “The East Anglian works in particular performed with gusto. These homegrown artists are still largely affordable – but for how much longer?”
In terms of works in Venison’s collection by artists from beyond his East Anglia, a small Mary Fedden (1915-2012) watercolour, The Cut Melon, 1994, sold online to a London collector at £3600 against a £800- 1200 estimate. A John Craxton (1922-2009) crayon on brown paper, Landscape, Lanzarote from 1975, sold to a buyer in Salisbury for £6000 against a £2000-3000 pitch.
“There were some really strong prices across the board” said Oakley. “The lack of viewing opportunities in the lockdown certainly didn’t hamper interest or prevent clients from digging deep.
“Overall, it was an encouraging day for the market, showing that despite the uncertainties, people still want to buy art.”
The top lot of the sale overall was Sarah Reflecting by Ken Howard (b.1932). The 3ft 4in x 4ft (1.02 x 1.22m) signed oil on canvas from 2000 came from a separate source – a local collector of Howard’s work who bought it from the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in the year it was painted.
While works by the London-born artist appear regularly at auction, this example, which was estimated at £8000-12,000, appealed strongly to followers of the artist, depicting his favourite model draped in blue looking in a mirror.
It was knocked down online to a private buyer at £23,000, the second highest price for Howard at auction according to 'Artprice by Artmarket'.
An earlier painting by another artist but, again, one of numerous works exhibited by the painter at the RA produced one of the best performances at Sworders.
The still-life of garden flowers by Newlyn School artist Gertrude Harvey (1879-1966) was a 20¼ x 22in (52 x 56cm) signed oil on canvas. It had provenance to dealer David Messum back in the 1990s and came to auction from came from a vendor in Essex with an estimate of just £250-350.
Generating hefty competition that easily carried it beyond this level, it was eventually knocked down to a UK buyer bidding over the phone at £8200.
The price was another auction record according to 'Artprice by Artmarket'.