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'Harbour and Ships' by Alfred Wallis – £28,500 at David Lay.

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The Dame Laura Knight nude study that made £105,000 to lead the latest fine art sale at David Lay (18% buyer’s premium) – as seen on the front page of last week’s ATG No 2479 – was by no means the only lot that caught bidders’ eyes in Penzance.

The 768-lot auction totalled over £550,000 with an impressive sell-though rate of 92%. Not bad for an event in the midst of a lockdown.

As with other auctions across the country, restrictions meant that no live viewing was held, but the saleroom organised an impressive virtual exhibition via the 360-degree platform artsteps.com.

The auction house said: “It was one of our best-ever sales and David has been trading for over 40 years. It was even better than the heady days of the 1980s antiques boom when he sold a Chippendale bookcase for £250,000.”

Wallis work

The sale on January 28-29 benefited from a valuable consignment of four West Country paintings which came from a deceased estate and had previously hung in a Cornish mansion. It was believed that the collection was put together in the 1970s.

The most valuable of the four proved to be Beryl Cook’s Plymouth Market.

Another lot to bring multiple bidders was Harbour and Ships, a trademark scene by the Cornish fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis (1855-1942).

The 6 x 8½in (15 x 22.5cm) oil and pencil on card depicted a birds-eye view of St Michael’s Mount and had been acquired by leading St Ives School collector George Dannatt from dealer Victor Waddington in 1972. Having subsequently passed through the same dealer once again, it was then acquired by the family of the current vendor.

It had been exhibited twice at shows organised by The Arts Council.

Wallis made his earliest works on scraps of cardboard, plywood and odd pieces of paper – examples of which were spotted nailed on a wall by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood as they walked passed his house in August 1928.

His primitive seascapes were produced from memory, depicting scenes and locations he had observed his whole life, and featured a limited palette due to the fact that he bought his paint from ship chandlers.

This picture appeared to have been completed on what was once the lid of a box. The top edge was slightly torn and a tuck flap had produced a crease toward the lower edge. On one of the labels on the back was an inscription in pencil via Ede – a possible reference to Jim Ede, an early collector and promoter of Wallis’ work whose house in Cambridge is now Kettle’s Yard gallery.

Despite being a small picture, the subject, provenance and likelihood of it being an early work appear to have roused a number of important players in the market. The estimate of £13,000-15,000 prompted five bidders – a mixture of private collectors and dealers – to book phone lines.

It sold online for £28,500 to a private client in London; a solid sum given that it was a small picture even for Wallis, an artist whose output was mostly rather compact.

Simple pleasures

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'Fishing Boat' by Bryan Pearce – £17,500 at David Lay.

The other two lots from the collection were both examples of the naïve-style paintings of Bryan Pearce (1929-2006), an artist whose technique and subject matter was not unlike Wallis.

A depiction of a fishing boat from 1978 in particular drew competition against a £7500-8000 estimate. It was a rare example of a single boat subject and bidders were attracted to the simplicity of the work.

The signed 17¼ x 21½in (44 x 55cm) oil on board drew six phone bidders, mostly private clients, but sold at £17,500 to a buyer who has strong Cornish connections. The price stands within the top 10 auction sums for Pearce (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

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'Turquoise Ginger Jar and Fruit' by Bryan Pearce – £6200 at David Lay.

The following lot was also a slightly unusual composition for the artist: a still-life titled Turquoise Ginger Jar and Fruit.

While still-lifes by Pearce are by no means unknown, they do not emerge as often at auction as his pictures of boats and harbours and views of the streets and houses of St Ives, which also tend to command the higher prices.

The 21½ x 17¾in (55 x 45cm) signed oil on board was dated 1976 on the back. Pitched at the lower level of £4000-6000, it sold at £6200 to a different buyer.

Sweet success

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'Sweet Poll of Plymouth' ascribed to John Opie – £4600 at David Lay.

Elsewhere in the sale, two portraits ascribed to John Opie (1761-1807) came from a local client and were offered separately, each with £3000-5000 estimates, but met with contrasting fates.

One titled Sweet Poll of Plymouth sold at £4600 to a private buyer on the phone and will be heading out of the county, while the other ‘attributed to’ Opie and thought to depict the actress Mrs Elizabeth Kemble remained unsold.

The former was a 2ft 11in x 2ft 2in (90 x 71cm) oil on canvas which was in largely decent condition despite some cracking (in particular to an area in the lower part of the painting where some bitumen had been applied).

The subject of ‘Sweet Poll of Plymouth’ seems to be derived from an old seafaring ballad, although its meaning may have become obscured in the early 19th century as the character of Poll appeared as a subject in some rather louche cartoons.

Bidders may well have been attracted to the fact that a picture with this title was exhibited by Opie at the Royal Academy in 1785.