The studies of Linley and Oliver Messel, members of an Anglo-German banking dynasty, appeared respectively at the picture sale held by Olympia Auctions on September 22 and at Christie’s timed online-only sale of items previously belonging to Lord Snowdon (1930-2017) that closed on September 24.
These 19 x 14in (48 x 36cm) watercolours were two of three by Ranken submitted to the Royal Society of Portrait Artists for exhibition in 1921. A third sketch (its whereabouts now unknown) depicted Anne Messel, the future wife of Ronald Armstrong- Jones and Lord Snowdon’s mother. Linley and Oliver were thus Snowdon’s uncles.
Ranken appears to have been a favourite of the Messel family, painting not just all three siblings but also their father Col. Leonard Messel as well as a further portrait of Anne after her second marriage to the 6th Earl of Rosse.
The Edinburgh-born artist operated from a studio in Chelsea close to that of John Singer Sargent. However, unlike his friend and fellow portraitist, Ranken is no longer commercially such a prominent name with most works selling in the hundreds or low thousands (the previous highest price is £8000 for Covent Garden, a large oil on canvas from 1930 sold at Bonhams in 1992).
The portrait of Linley Messel (1899-1971) at Olympia Auctions had remained in Ranken’s studio until 1941 and then passed, via the artist’s sister, to Oliver Messel in 1946 and it was entered into the auction by a private collector.
Against an estimate of £300- 500, it was carried to 10 times the low estimate by commission bidding alone. It then came down to a battle between two phone bidders before it sold to an international collector at £4800 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
The portrait of Oliver Messel (1904-1978) at Christie’s had remained with the young men’s parents, before it was inherited by Lord Snowdon. Here the estimate was a more punchy £3000-5000.
Indeed, the provenance to a member of the Royal family seems to have been a major factor in helping the bidding reach £13,000. It went to an overseas buyer.
Artist and designer
What became of the two sitters? In later life, Linley Messel commanded the Middlesex Yeomanry in the Second World War (he was mentioned in despatches) and then worked in the family firm of L Messel & Co.
Oliver became a celebrated costume and set designer, helping to design Princess Margaret’s house on the Caribbean island of Mustique as well as a suite in the Dorchester that is named after him.
He was also an artist in his own right and a 1962 portrait of the American socialite Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley was the top picture in the Snowdon sale at Christie’s, selling to a UK bidder at £19,000.
Overall the Snowdon sale raised £354,375 including premium with 122 of the 143 lots finding buyers. It was led by a pair of chairs he designed himself for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in July 1969.