While Russian art auctions normally generate headlines in the UK in the early summer, this year a few notable sales have also taken place involving works from different eastern European countries.
A recent sale at Bellmans (22% buyer’s premium) in Wisborough Green, West Sussex, for example, offered a painting by Romanian painter Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), an artist who rarely emerges at auctions in Britain.
Regarded as the father of modern Romanian painting, his portrait appears on the 10 Leu banknote and multiple works have sold for the equivalent of £100,000 or over in his homeland – the highest being £301,285 for Peasant girl at Bucharest saleroom Artmark SRL in October 2018 (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
When works appear elsewhere in the world they invariably attract interest from nationally minded buyers with the highest price outside Romania coming for Danube guard (Santinela) that sold for $80,000 (£61,912) at Bonhams New York in May 2017.
The artist painted everyday scenes of his country in a variety of styles. In 1861 he was awarded a grant to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and, while in Paris, he met Pierre-Auguste Renoir. He later also became associated with the Barbizon school and was influenced by artists such as Jean-François Millet, Gustave Courbet and Théodore Rousseau.
Returning to Bucharest in 1869, he became a prominent figure in a number of Romanian artists’ groups and, in 1877, was appointed a war artist during the Romanian War of Independence (a conflict subsumed into the Russo-Turkish War where Romania, fighting on the Russian side, gained independence from the Ottoman Empire).
The painting at Bellmans had a typical everyday subject of a woman at her bureau but, stylistically, it was more impressionistic than most works which are not so loosely painted and more highly finished.
It came to the auction from a descendant of Viorel Tilea (1896-1972), a famous diplomat who was Romanian ambassador to the UK. He had remained in Britain during the Second World War, living in Oxfordshire while representing his country’s exiled monarchy.
The 16¼ x 11in (41 x 28cm) signed oil on canvas was in good untouched condition, although it had some thin paint in places as well as some scuffs and surface dirt. With decent condition adding to the attractive subject, bright palette and excellent provenance, it surpassed a £20,000-30,000 guide and was knocked down at £32,000 to an online bidder in Europe.
The price was among the highest recorded for the artist at UK auctions and was the highest among the 151 lots at the Bellmans sale.
The sale itself on May 25-27 was the first for which the West Sussex firm held an auction preview at its London office at Brook Street in Mayfair. While it is difficult to gauge how much this contributed to the overall amount of bidding, a number of other works also drew encouraging interest.
One was a small but striking self-portrait by John Simpson (1782-1847) which was very much in the manner of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830).
Simpson was an assistant in Lawrence’s studio for many years and completed several of his master’s ‘unfinished’ portraits with great technical skill. Although he was appointed as a painter to Mary II, queen of Portugal, in 1834 and nowadays a handful of his works are in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection, he has long been overshadowed by Lawrence and never quite regarded in the top rank of society portraitists in his own right.
However, the sale of his masterpiece The captive slave in 2008 by dealer Ben Elwes to the Art Institute of Chicago has brought some extra attention, although autograph works entirely in his own hand remain extraordinarily rare on the market.
The 11 x 9¼in (28 x 24cm) oil on board at Bellmans had remained with the family of the artist and came to auction from one of Simpson’s descendants.
Although it had some minor craquelure, retouching and uneven varnish, it was in decent condition and the £1200-1800 estimate did not seem excessive, even though the artist has only a minor track-record in the saleroom (only around 10 works are recorded as having sold at auction).
It eventually went for £7500 to private UK collector, setting a new benchmark for Simpson and topping the £6500 for a portrait of Miss Mary Simpson that sold at Christie’s back in November 1988 and was the previous high.
Among the works on paper drawing bidding at the sale was a sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-73) of two ladies in a garden. Although a fairly simple pen, ink and wash composition, it had a tantalising inscription to a gallery label on the back: Ex collection Duke of Bedford.
In 1823, Landseer was commissioned to paint Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford, for which he was paid handsomely but, soon after, began an affair with the sitter which lasted 30 years and scandalised Regency Britain.
The artist produced a large series of watercolours and drawings that relate to their liaison and the Bellmans catalogue stated that this 7 x 4¼in (17.5 x 11cm) study ‘appears to be part of this series’. Pitched at £800-1200, it doubled its top estimate when it sold at £2400.