In recent decades finished oils by Alice Boyd (1823-97) have tended to sell in the £2000-4000 range – the high-water mark being £6500 for a work sold at Christie’s in 1997.
That was until an extraordinary five minutes of bidding at Bonhams on March 30. The Thames from Cheyne Walk, a 2ft 6in x 2ft (77 x 61cm) oil on canvas from 1875, dramatically overshot a £15,000-20,000 estimate and was knocked down to an anonymous buyer at £190,000 (or £237,750 including buyer’s premium) – a record 29 times over.
The following lot, two watercolours by Boyd, sold together to a different buyer for £5500 – a sum more in keeping with previous prices.
For a long time Boyd has been somewhat overshadowed by her lover, the better-known Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott (1811-90), but this does not seem to fully explain the level of bidding.
A few features of the Cheyne Walk picture appear to have generated considerable interest.
Inscribed to the bottom of the window frame were the words Chelsea, Belle Vue House. The property, at the heart of what is now one London’s most desirable addresses, was where Scott lived with his wife Laetitia between 1871-90. Boyd, who was originally Scott’s pupil before becoming his mistress, joined them in an unconventional but seemingly happy ménage à trois.
Previous residents on the street range from George Elliot to George Best, while Dante Gabriel Rossetti lived for a while at number 16 along with a group of friends and a large menagerie of exotic animals.
Belle Vue House itself was home to Benjamin Disraeli, who lived here during his second term as prime minister, and later the British film actor Rex Harrison. The house was last on the market in 2016 with an asking price of £18m.
This connection added to an elegant composition combining elements of still-life with a pleasing view from a window over the river. The presence of the sleeping cat, butterfly and bird also provided an extra commercial boost.
Boyd came from aristocratic family and inherited the title of Laird of Penkill Castle in Ayrshire after her brother Spencer died unexpectedly in 1865. The author and artist Ellen Creathorne Clayton suggested that she inherited her ability to draw from her mother who was in the habit of constantly sketching from nature.
Before the sale Bonhams had said that the quality of the work showed that she was “a considerable artist in her own right”. Reflecting on the result, the auction house pointed to “a combination of factors” including “an amazing subject that has overtones of artists like Tissot and Whistler who loved painting the Thames”.
One of the bidders on the lot added that the “appealing topographical view”, good size and the fact that works by female artists are currently gaining greater demand were also important factors.