The artists may not have been household names but they both produced interesting works and led quite fascinating lives.
A group of 27 works from the estate of Katharine ‘Kitty’ Church (1910-99) came to auction through her executor, provided an intriguing insight into the Highgate-born painter’s range of work and also showcased her close exchanges with well-known artist friends.
They generated a favourable reaction at the sale with all bar one of the lots in the group sold for a £13,400 hammer total at the auction on April 22.
The consignment included 10 of Church’s works which raised a combined £9750.
Born in Highgate, north London, Katharine Church, known as ‘Kitty’ among friends and family, trained at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1930-33 and at the Slade from 1933-34. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1933 at the Wertheim Gallery where artists such as Christopher Wood, Victor Pasmore and Cedric Morris were also showing their works at the time.
She later exhibited at the New English Art Club and at the Lefevre Gallery, and over the years maintained a wide circle of artist friends.
In the 1960s, she purchased Sutton House and ran the Hambledon Gallery at Blandford Forum, promoting the work of artists including John Craxton, Leonard Rosoman, Keith Vaughan, Mary Potter and Cecil Beaton, as well as a wide range of local artists.
The artist is normally described as a neo-Romantic painter whose style was akin to John Piper (who she knew from her early days) but she was also influenced by the techniques of Ivon Hitchens, in particular the looser handling and fluid colouring. She had met Hitchens in 1933 – two years before she met her future husband, the writer Anthony West (son of Dame Rebecca West and HG Wells).
Uppermost among Church’s own works in the Chiswick sale was a portrait of West painted shortly before they married. The 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (76 x 64cm) oil on canvas was signed and dated 1936. It had bold colours and strong lines that evinced the “personal style, dashing, generous, linear with homage to Cézanne and perhaps Van Gogh” to which Piper himself referred to in Church’s obituary in The Times.
It was very much a known work, having featured in an exhibition at Sally Hunter & Patrick Seale Fine Art in London in 1984 and also in a 2015 publication on the artist by John Duncalfe (former director of the Duncalfe Galleries in Harrogate).
Most Church works, when they appear at auction, sell for £1000-2000 – the estimate for this portrait. The artist’s record had been £2000 for a still-life sold at Sotheby’s in 2003, while more recently another still-life fetched £1650 at Tennants in October last year, and a view of Stourhead made £1700 at Woolley & Wallis in June 2017.
The picture at Chiswick, however, was an altogether different commercial proposition. The early date of the portrait and the obvious personal connection between artist and sitter added to its qualities.
This clearly struck a chord with bidders and it was knocked down to a private Australia buyer at £5600 – a result that significantly raised the bar of the artist’s market.
While other works by Church at the sale all sold for under £1000, the top lot among the art from her estate was for one of the many works she received as gifts from her artist friends, in this case Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947).
After leaving London, Church and West hosted many painters at their home at Quarry Farm, Tisbury, near Salisbury, including the New Zealand artist Hodgkins.
Still life with fruits, an 18¾in x 2ft 1in (48 x 62cm) pencil, watercolour and gouache, was signed by the artist and was one of a number of works by Hodgkins that was dedicated to Kitty and Anthony.
In a letter to Church’s dealer, Duncan Macdonald of the Lefevre Gallery, Hodgkins wrote: “I had the happiest of long weekends with the Wests, and have painted three quite attractive canvases. They are two delightful dears, Anthony and Kitty – I loved my visit to them.”
This familiar work in terms of style and subject, echoing Matisse and Dufy, was exhibited at The Isle of Purbeck Arts Club in March 1948.
It was pitched at a relatively obtainable £4000-6000 and sold to a UK private buyer at £9000 on thesaleroom.com – a decent sum for a work on paper of this size, especially one with a more fragmentary composition than most of Hodgkin’s works that can easily sell for five-figure sums at auction.
Another well-known name represented by a work on paper in the collection was John Craxton (1922- 2009). Again, he was an artist who Church knew well and the signed 23¼ x 18¼in (60 x 46cm) ink and gouache of a boy leaning on a step was another gift she received.
It dated from 1954, a time when the artist was receiving considerable acclaim and exhibiting his paintings of Greek subjects at the Leicester Galleries, and it came with an inscription to Kitty to the lower left.
Although it might not have been as identifiably ‘Craxton-esque’ as some other examples that have emerged on the market over the last few years, it drew a number of bidders against its £2000-3000 estimate and sold to the UK trade at £2400.
The second group of works from an artist’s estate at the Chiswick sale comprised six lots by the versatile Canadian-British painter Hugh Cronyn (1905-96). They came to auction from the artist’s family.
Originally from Vancouver, he developed a strong connection to the Chiswick area and became a well-known local character.
He was immersed in the bohemian and artistic community he encountered on the Hammersmith-Chiswick borders by the river (not too far from the Chiswick saleroom).
He lived next-door to the Irish painter Nora McGuinness (1901- 80) – a painting of her smoking sold for £480 at this sale – before later becoming a tutor at Colchester School of Art in 1949 and moving to Suffolk.
The artist does not have much of a presence at auction today with the few works that have emerged tending to sell for below £500.
Offered here, though, was a painting with a famous subject: Winston Churchill’s funeral barge coming up to Festival Pier, an event the artist witnessed first-hand from the embankment on the north side of the Thames in January 1965.
The scene shows the vessel MV Havengore shortly after Churchill’s state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral.
The 2ft 6in x 4ft 2in (76cm x 1.27m) oil on canvas was naive in style but, with the artist having served in the navy and being a huge admirer of the wartime prime minister, it was an attempt to convey the sobriety of an historic moment.
The estimate was £600-800 but it sold for £1100 to a UK private buyer, an auction record for Cronyn.
The price pipped the £950 bid for Cronyn’s portrait of his wife Jean from c.1948 that overshot a £400- 600 estimate at the Chiswick sale. However, the two Cronyn works that drew the most competition were both woodcuts estimated at just £80-120.
He learned the craft of wood engraving from another neighbour, the artist Gertrude Hermes, and the two examples here were both from 1939 and demonstrated his craftsmanship and ability to capture the atmosphere of his locality.
To some minds, these were the most desirable of his works on offer and bidders duly responded.
One depicted Black Lion Lane – an area with a pub and community which had something of a village feel about it before the nearby A4 dual carriageway was later constructed. The novelist, humourist and politician AP Herbert would hold court at the Black Lion every Sunday and it was through such gatherings that Cronyn – who lived opposite the pub – met many artists and writers.
The woodcut depicted the pub itself and surrounding houses – including the artist’s own studio at number 9A – and the ‘Bell Steps’ at the end of Hammersmith Terrace beyond. Measuring 6 x 6¾in (15 x 18cm), the unframed sheet drew strong bidding and was knocked down at £950 to a UK private buyer.
The following lot was a woodcut titled The Black Lion Skittle Alley which depicted what Cronyn described in his unpublished memoirs as the local skittle alley where he played frequently. It measured 5½ x 7in (14 x 18cm) and sold for the same multi-estimate sum of £950 but to a different buyer.
Overall the six lots all sold and generated £4940. Chiswick Auctions’ head of sale Krassi Kuneva said it “proved that Cronyn’s work resonates with our clients and there is much desire for it”.
The top lot of the sale was for a vintage work by Mary Fedden (1915-2012). Pink roses was a relatively late work dating from 1997 but the 15½x 19¼in (39 x 49cm) signed oil on canvas was appealing in colour and composition, combining elements of still-life and landscape painting.
It came from a vendor who had acquired it from the artist and it had never been exhibited in public before, giving an ‘unseen’ factor and market freshness.
Estimated at £7000-10,000, it sold to the trade for £15,000 – a price that looked pretty strong for a work of this size.
Another Fedden painting by acquired by the same vendor from the artist and never exhibited before was South of France, a work from 1988 that provided a contrast to Pink roses in subject and tone.
The 2ft 5in x 23¼in (74 x 59cm) signed oil on canvas had a higher estimate of £10,000- 15,000 and sold within predictions for £13,500 to a UK private buyer on thesaleroom.com.
Kuneva said that in the three years since they were launched, these auctions have proved successful in achieving good results for already established artists but also in “building markets for artists with less or no previous exposure at auction”.
“The aim has been to showcase and celebrate the great variety of absolutely brilliant British artists and I think we can certainly say that it’s been working really well so far,” added Kuneva.
With the sale taking place with the country still in lockdown due to the coronavirus, the auction house reported that it had never had so much online bidding for a sale in this category.
Over 450 bidders registered online with absentee bids and phone lines also showing increased activity.
The final result was encouraging: 88% of the 162 lots sold for a total of over £200,000 (including premium) with some aftersales still pending.