For reasons of supply and demand, sales of Scottish art are usually dominated by the 20th century big-hitters.
But while a painting by one of the modern Scottish Colourists led the day at Lyon & Turnbull’s (25/20% buyer’s premium) latest flagship auction in this category, it was a handful of more traditional works that attracted the most notable competition.
As well as a solidly-performing collection of Sir William Russell Flint watercolours, three 19th century landscapes brought significant interest and provided welcome signs of life in the sector.
Although demand for Victorian idylls of the Scottish landscape has declined somewhat over the last few decades, L&T’s head of Scottish paintings and sculpture Nick Curnow pointed out that the sale in Edinburgh on December 4 “attracted a lot of international interest with a selection of the significant pictures going to new homes in America”.
Nasmyth's Edinburgh outskirts
These included a landscape by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) showing the outskirts of Edinburgh from the north-west. Signed and dated 1822, the 2ft 8in x 3ft 9in (82cm x 1.15m) oil on canvas was estimated at £15,000-20,000, a level that may have seemed punchy given prices fetched the artist over recent years.
Most works sold recently have been fairly routine pieces, including three that made between £2500-5000 at the current sale. However few major works by the artist have emerged since January 2006 when the spectacular Falls of Clyde sold for £90,000 at L&T.
While that earlier picture exhibited considerable artistic flair and demonstrated why the artist is sometimes referred to as ‘the father of the landscape painting in Scotland’, the current painting was also deemed expertly handled and atmospheric. In addition the subject raised it above the ordinary.
These views of the Scottish capital from afar were described as “a high point of Nasmyth’s art” by Duncan McMillan in his book The Birth of Scottish Landscape.
As with other works, it showed the Edinburgh skyline framed by its distinctive topography which, as was suggested in the catalogue, may have derived from enlightened ideas of Edinburgh philosopher Thomas Reid of man finding his place within the order of nature.
With these factors in its favour, the lot attracted interest from bigger-spending collectors, not just the regular Nasmyth buyers. After a decent competition on the day, it was knocked down to the US buyer for £26,000 – outselling the last comparable picture on the market, the slightly smaller View of Edinburgh from Blackford Hill that made £19,000 at L&T in June 2019.
The sum also represented the highest price at auction for the artist for over three years (source: Artprice by Market).
Highland views by English artists
Two other Scottish landscapes, although this time by English painters, also caught the eye at the sale. Highland Cattle in a Mountain Glen by Louis Bosworth Hurt (1856-1929) was a trademark work by the Derbyshire artist who was a prolific painter of views of cattle by the glens and lochs. These works were extremely popular in their day. Indeed, such was the demand the artist kept his own herd of Highland cattle to use as models.
His works remain common on the market and values are quite varied. Prices are largely determined by the size of the picture, number of cattle, particular location depicted and moodiness of the scene, as well as of course by condition and, crucially these days, market freshness – the lack of which has been the detriment of many a work by Hurt offered at auction over the last 20 years.
This 2ft 6in x 4ft (76cm x 1.22m) oil on canvas, signed and dated 1901, ticked the boxes. Against a £10,000-15,000 guide it garnered significant interest and took £23,000 from a British collector.
It was the highest price for Hurt since The Hills of Skye, an earlier and larger work, made the same sum at Bonhams in October 2016.
The following lot had a similar subject. Sunset over a Highland Loch by Alfred de Breanski Senior (1852-1928) depicted cattle drinking from the placid water and was again a trademark work by an English artist best known for depicting the Welsh and Scottish landscape.
Estimated at £6000-8000, the 2ft 6in x 4ft 2in (76cm x 1.27m) signed oil on canvas found favour from a number of parties and also sold to a British collector at £9000. This sum was the highest among the four works by the artist at the auction that collectively raised £26,800.
Overall, the 223-lot sale raised over £1m including premium with 90% of the lots sold. While the highest price of the day came for Samuel Peploe (1871-1935), the performance of the Colourist lots was on this occasion slightly patchy.
A Francis Cadell (1883-1937) portrait of his friend William Macdonald was unsold against a £40,000-60,000 pitch, and although Peploe’s Interior with Girl in White led the auction, it only got away on low estimate at £50,000.
The work was well known and had provenance to the artist’s dealer Alexander Reid and the collection of his own brother, Willy Peploe. It had subsequently appeared in an exhibition dedicated to the artist at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1985, as well as at a show of Scottish Colourists held by London dealer Duncan Miller in 1995.
Dating from c.1905-09, it was stylistically and technically somewhat removed from his more poised still lifes that the market tends to favour. Nevertheless, it was another of the lots that sold overseas, again in this case to a US collector.
Making lesser sums but drawing greater competition were two small beach scenes by fellow Colourist George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931).
They were painted on Hunter’s second trip to the picturesque town of Étaples in northern France in 1913, a period coinciding with dramatic changes in his work as he became influenced by the likes of Cèzanne. It was also where he was briefly incarcerated as a suspected German spy, being spotted making frequent lone visits to the harbourside.
Both works demonstrated how the artist’s palette lightened and brushstrokes broadened at this time, and they were among a series of scenes praised by his biographer for their “freshness of the sea breeze… (and) sense of bustling movement”.
First up at L&T was Elegant Figures on the Beach, a 7½ x 18¾in (19 x 48cm) signed oil on board estimated at £15,000-20,000. It sold to a UK collector at £19,000.
The following lot, On the Beach, a 8 x 12in (20 x 31cm) signed oil on board, made a mid-estimate £12,000 and also went to a UK collector.