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'Head of a Girl (Edie McNeill)' by Augustus John – a record $390,000 (£280,185) at Christie’s New York.

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Although it is sometimes said that the eventful romantic life of Augustus John (1878-1961) has at times overshadowed his work, his portraits – especially those of the closest people in his life story – can be like gold dust commercially.

Indeed, there are those who believe that for arguably the most prominent figure of 20th century Welsh art such works are still undervalued. The recent sale of an alluring portrait, however, has gone a long way to correcting that.

Sister of mistress and muse

The work offered at Christie’s (25/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) in New York on March 1 was one of those compositions that seemed to neatly stitch his life and art together – and the lot followed a number of such works by Bloomsbury Group artists posting strong sums lately.

The sitter was Edie McNeill, the younger sister of John’s muse and mistress Dorelia McNeill. According to the catalogue entry, written by the artist’s granddaughter Rebecca John, the sisters had much in common: striking dark hair and tanned complexion, a low, husky voice and, in spite of a down-to-earth and practical nature, they had an air of mystery about them.

Her future husband, the eccentric Irish poet-philosopher Francis Macnamara whom she married some 25-30 years after this portrait was executed, was intrigued by her ‘sphinx-like characteristics’ and even developed a theory that she was the Virgin Goddess.

The 14 x 10in (37 x 27cm) red and black chalk on paper dated from 1906, the year before Edie and her sister had joined the John household following the death of the artist’s first wife Ida in March 1907. It was one of a number of drawings and paintings in which she appeared – not only by John but also Henry Lamb who was a frequent visitor to their home at Alderney Manor in Dorset.

Along with Dorelia, Edie helped raise John’s four sons from his marriage to Ida and also his two sons from her sister (as well as their daughter Poppet, who was born in 1912). According to the catalogue, ‘Aunt Edie’s’ steady presence provided comfort in what was a turbulent home life.

The portrait was well known both curatorially and commercially. Since 1950, it had featured in dedicated exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London, Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield and the National Museum in Cardiff. In terms of its presence on the market, it had previously set a notable record for the artist of £82,000 (£92,000 including premium) at Christie’s London in March 1997.

Back then it had been bought by London dealer Thomas Gibson and had been kept in his family’s collection, along with the van Gogh drawing reported in this issue.

In New York, it was estimated at $200,000-300,000 – a level that may have looked punchy beforehand but proved not to be on the day. With the extra exposure of being offered in a New York sale alongside the likes of van Gogh and Lucian Freud, it drew significant interest and was knocked down at $390,000 (£280,185).

The sum set another record for John – surpassing the previous high of £160,000 for a slightly smaller drawing of Dorelia in a hat which sold at Christie’s in December 2013. Accounting for inflation, it had roughly doubled in value over the 23 years since it Gibson had acquired it.

Dorelia in charcoal

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Another Augustus John drawing, catalogued as a study of Dorelia McNeill from c.1903-05 – £16,000 at Tennants.

Another Augustus John portrait came up at Tennants (20% buyer’s premium) of Leyburn, North Yorkshire on March 20: a smaller 6¼ x 6in (16 x 15.5cm) charcoal on buff paper. It was slightly earlier than the Christie’s NY portrait.

Again, Rebecca John assisted with the cataloguing here. Although the signature John was in another hand and it had a faint inscription on the back identifying the sitter (seemingly incorrectly) as another of the artist’s models, Alick Schepeler, it was catalogued as a fully autograph drawing of Dorelia McNeill from c.1903-05.

While any Augustus John portrait of Dorelia is a valuable commercial prospect, especially one like this that was thought to date from around the start of their relationship, and another head study with some similarity had sold for £120,000 at Christies in June 2015, here it was pitched at a much lower level of £7000-10,000. That perhaps reflected the lack of the artist’s signature and also a few condition issues including some foxing.

Nevertheless, it drew decent competition on the day and it sold at £16,000 to a private buyer in the north of England.