The recent sale of 72 works from the personal collection of Scottish artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004) will be best remembered for the sensational performance of a nude sketch by Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75).
Pictured in ATG No 2517 (Pick of the Week, News Digest), the picture – which was a wedding present from Hepworth to Barns-Graham – flew past a £100,000-150,000 estimate and sold at £380,000, more than doubling the auction record for a Hepworth drawing.
But it was not the only picture offered that charted Barns-Graham’s friendships and professional relationships with other artists, especially those working in and around St Ives where she was based for the better part of her career.
The sale on October 28 came about after the Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust decided to sell a selected group of pictures from its holdings in order to raise funds for charitable programme.
The trust, which was established by the artist in 1987, not only supports Barns- Graham’s legacy but also helps young people in their artistic endeavours. The sale was staged by Lyon & Turnbull (25% buyer’s premium) at the Mall Galleries in London. With the attractive provenance and the works for the most part priced at appetising levels, all 72 lots found new homes and the ‘white-glove’ sale raised a total of £930,050 (including premium).
Director of The Wilhelmina Barns- Graham Trust Rob Airey said the sale “exceeded the trust’s expectations and will help support our mission and future generations of artists”.
Three works at the auction were by Barns-Graham herself. The most prominent was Red and violet, a 3ft x 2ft 4in (91 x 71cm) oil on canvas from 1961. It was one of her richly coloured paintings of geometric forms which she began to produce after moving away from landscapes in the 1950s. It was described in the catalogue as “one of the earliest examples of her new, hard-edged style” and was estimated at £10,000-15,000.
With her more abstract works tending to be more commercial, it was knocked down at £35,000, a price that ranks in the top 10 auction results of the artist.
A later abstract, Newlyn 2, an acrylic on board from the mid-1980s, also brought interest. Part of group of works that Barns-Graham described as her ‘collages’ (comprising small circles of paper built up into painted reliefs), the work here was one of her larger and more ambitious creations. It overshot a £8000-12,000 estimate and took £20,000.
An earlier work, somewhat different in style, appeared with a lower pitch. The portrait of Mrs Rogers, a local lady from St Ives who tended the bar at the renowned Sloop Inn, was estimated at £6000-8000 and sold on top estimate. Although the price was well shy of the level achieved for Barns-Graham’s more experimental works, it was nevertheless the highest at auction for one of her rare portraits (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
The 2ft 6in x 2ft 1in (76 x 63cm) oil on canvas dated from c.1945 and in Barns-Graham’s notebook the artist wrote: “I am painting in the Sloop [Inn]. This is a job. The light is poor + time limited…She is a handsome clear-cut woman with most distinctive hair dressing + a charming attractive personality. Tall + angular. With a sensous [sic] mouth yet almost hard face. Something of the Duchess of Windsor style. So she has often been told + I can see it.”
Another artist bringing demand at the sale was Alfred Wallis (1855- 1942). Like many others in the St Ives enclave, Barns-Graham admired the simplicity, directness and lack of formality of Wallis’ images, many of which were painted on scrap materials like cardboard and wood. Their paths crossed over but their acquaintance was relatively brief as Wallis died two years after Barns-Graham had settled in the Cornish town.
The three works by Wallis here were all given to Barns-Graham by her friends Ben Nicholson, Mary Buchanan and Sven Berlin. The example from Berlin was given as a ‘thank you’ for the research she did on the Wallis family for his book on the artist. It was deemed the best of the group and duly made the highest price.
Titled St Ives Bay, the pencil and oil on board measured 3¼ x 11in (8 x 30cm). Although a small work, it came with a long exhibition history including the important dedicated Wallis show at the Tate Gallery in 1968.
Wallis’ pictures which feature known landmarks tend to draw the most attention, especially those painted from a bird’s-eye perspective as was the case here. On the day, it exceeded a £15,000-25,000 estimate and was knocked down at £42,000, a decent price and one of the highest for the artist this year.
Also going over estimate was one of Wallis’ views of Plymouth which was given to Barns-Graham by Buchanan. A signed oil and chalk on card, it tipped over a £20,000-30,000 guide and sold at £32,000. Higher expectations were placed on the small picture of houses in St Ives which had previously been in the collection of Nicholson. The 7¼ x 10½in (19 x 27cm) oil, pencil and chalk on cardboard again had a long exhibition history, including the 1968 Tate Gallery show.
Here the estimate was set at £30,000-50,000 which, on the day, proved a bit ambitious as it was knocked down at £28,000 – a sum that nevertheless looked pretty strong per square inch.
Two prints by Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) himself were included in the Barns-Graham auction. The two artists knew each other well and the history of these pictures seemed to reflect their friendship.
One of the etchings titled Trendrine had been bought by Barns-Graham in a series of instalments. In a letter to Nicholson, she wrote: “Dear Ben, I have chosen the drypoint titled ‘Terendine’ from those we took away on Sunday. I enclose £2 & will send another £2 next month if that really is alright with you. How grateful I am.” The 7 x 9¾in (18 x 25cm) etching was from an edition of six and the subject of a hamlet on a hill in Cornwall dated from 1948.
Estimated at £6000-8000, it made £9500 – the highest price so far at auction for this edition.
The other print was from the same year but from an edition of 20. Jug & Glass was one of three etchings Nicholson gave to Barns-Graham as gifts and this one carried an inscription for Willy / Xmas 53. Examples of the etching have emerged before, including one that made £4800 at Bonhams in December 2015.
This one was estimated at £5000-7000 and sold at £6500, a new high for the edition and again showing the boost provided by the Barns-Graham provenance.