'The Orphan' by William Henry Hunt – £20,000 at Sotheby’s.

Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The dealer staged major exhibitions in 1967 and 1981. Commercially, Hunt has become rather neglected since those days when he was championed by Fry and the 19 works offered in July from his collection represented the most prominent offering for at least a decade, possibly two.

Nine of the 10 available at Sotheby’s sold for a combined £87,950 (including premium) with a further £9725 raised from the nine lots at Chiswick Auctions (all of which sold). Leading the pack at both salerooms were interior scenes with female figures.

A watercolour of a woman bottle-feeding a pig called The Orphan made the highest price among the lots at Sotheby’s, exceeding a £3000-5000 estimate and selling at £20,000. It was the highest price for the artist at auction for 17 years (source: Artprice by Artmarket).


'A Lady Reading by Lamplight' by William Henry Hunt – £4000 at Chiswick Auctions.

Over at Chiswick, A Lady Reading by Lamplight was also a work capturing the intimate atmosphere of an interior with the typical ‘warm-glow’ associated with the London-born artist. It sold on low estimate at £4000 to a private American collector.

While Hunt achieved great success with such works during his lifetime, the somewhat cloying sentiment of the pictures does not always appeal to modern minds – something which, generally, has affected price levels negatively.

Still-life theme


'An oyster shell and an onion' by William Henry Hunt – £19,000 at Sotheby’s.

However, one work on offer at Sotheby’s represented a different part of his oeuvre: still-life painting, an area which may well belie this trend.

The small watercolour of an oyster shell and an onion dated from 1859 and had been painted for his friend John Ruskin (who regarded Hunt as one of the greatest still-life painters of the age).

The 4¾x 6¾in (12 x 17cm) watercolour and bodycolour certainly demonstrated Hunt’s meticulous observation of detail and vivid use of colour and, although it had featured in Fry’s 1981 exhibition, the dealer chose to hold onto it.

Here it was estimated at £6000-8000 and, after drawing strong interest, sold at £19,000 – not only a very significant sum per square inch (especially given market conditions), but also setting a record for any still-life by the artist.