The hammer total of £393,500 from 485 lots in Market Harborough on April 27 exceeded the previous house record by over £65,000, with the firm reporting more than 1000 online and phone bidders.
“It was fantastic to see such consistently high results for a wide variety of Modern British art in this record-breaking sale,” said Gildings’ director and 20th century decorative art specialist Will Gilding.
“Despite the fact that this was an online-only auction, the sheer volume of bids we received on almost every lot meant the atmosphere was electric on the day.”
He pointed to increased demand from both buyers bidding on the big-ticket items as well as local artworks from places they know well, but also mentioned that it was still a struggle to ignite interest in the lower end, including areas such as Victorian watercolours.
One work in particular stood out. The undeniable star of the show was a landscape by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959).
View from Selworthy was one of a series of Somerset landscapes he painted looking towards Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor. It was a subject he returned to on a number of occasions, especially after he bought a cottage at nearby Withypool which later became his permanent home during the Second World War.
Some of these panoramic works are considered among his best landscapes, capturing the summer sun, long shadows and undulating hills, with smoother surfaces for the rolling grassland and bold impasto to the trees and foliage in the foreground. A number are now housed in Munnings Art Museum at Castle House, Dedham, but a few have emerged at auction in the last five years, including two at Christie’s. One made £60,000 in December 2019 and another £35,000 in July 2016.
A more valuable Somerset landscape sold again at Christie’s in March 2015, making £130,000.
This 17¼in x 2ft 4in (44 x 72cm) signed oil on canvas at Gildings had plenty in its favour including its market freshness and good provenance. It had been exhibited at the Leicester Gallery in 1947 and was given to Munnings’ friend Sybil Harker as a token of appreciation for her 13 years’ of mastership of the Norwich Staghounds. It came to auction as part of a local private consignment with a direct family connection to Harker.
The artist had come to know Harker through his frequent rides with the hunt where he was given unofficial status as ‘artist to the hunt’. Harker was also the subject of one of his most famous paintings, Sibyl Harker on Saxa, with the Norwich Staghounds which was made into a print. The original sold at Christie’s New York for $1.05m (£748,335) in December 2000.
Will Gilding described the combination of good subject, desirable provenance and good untouched condition to boot as “the holy trinity for a good result”.
While Munnings paintings featuring horses are typically more valuable, this work was always bound to outscore its £6000-8000 estimate. On the day it drew interest from both UK and US-based buyers with a mix of private and trade buyers. Ultimately, after a lengthy exchange of phone bids, it fell to the UK trade at £105,000.
The sum was one of the highest for a conventional Munnings landscape (ie without a horse) in the last three years and appears to be the highest at a UK regional sale since Woolley & Wallis sold A huntsman and hounds for £200,000 in June 2014.
It was also the third highest-ever price for a picture at Gildings (behind Maisons au Quai Vert, Bruges by Auguste Herbin that made £125,000 in 2017, and a 16th century Venetian painting sold at £205,000 in 2007).
This picture made a large chunk of the overall total at Gildings but a John Piper (1903-92) sketch also made a useful contribution to the bottom line.
The signed 14¼ x 19¼in (36 x 49cm) pen, ink and chalk on paper of the Ffrwd Fawr waterfall in Powys, Wales, showed exactly the same view as a striking and colourful oil painting from 1943 that was around double the size and sold for £66,000 at Gildings in April 2016. It came from a different source, however, a local private consignor who lived barely 15 miles from the property that had supplied the work in 2016.
This work on paper had been acquired from a 1973 exhibition at the Gadbsy Gallery in Leicester and came with a copy of the exhibition catalogue signed by Piper himself.
Described as ‘a fine example of his naturalistic style’, it was pitched at £15,000-25,000 but sold slightly below this level at £14,000 and was knocked down to the trade.
Another of Britain’s most celebrated 20th century artists, Bridget Riley (b.1931), was represented by a signed limited edition screenprint from 1987 titled Early Light. The 21in (53cm) square impression was a trademark and brightly coloured piece by the op-artist that came from a deceased estate in Nottinghamshire.
Coming from an edition of 75, it was pitched at £4000-6000 – a level in line with previous prices for this print. But with multiple bidders competing, it eventually came down to two London buyers battling it out before it made £11,000. The sum exceeded the £7000 fetched by another copy at Bonhams in June 2020.
While furniture, Chinese works of art and medals also played a role in helping achieve the record total, so did a selection of modern sculptures.
In particular, a group of five bronzes of birds by Hampshire-based sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood (b.1947) drew interest with four of them going over top estimate. All selling to the same UK private collector, they made a combined £24,800.
Top of the tree was Barn Owl, 1994, a lifesize signed bronze from an edition of 12 which had been purchased by the vendor (who was downsizing) from The Sladmore Gallery in July 1994.
Drawing admirers at the viewing and with the fact that it had been exhibited at the Royal Academy standing in its favour, it quickly surpassed its £2000-4000 estimate and sold at £12,000 – an auction record for the artist (source: Artprice by Artmarket).