Those fascinated by the streaks of light caused by a flaming meteor over Gloucestershire earlier this month are probably aware that it was just the latest sighting of an interplanetary body flying high across the night’s sky in Britain.
Among the most famous sightings in the 19th century was the appearance of Donati’s Comet that passed brightly across the country in 1858. The first comet to be photographed, it was by all accounts an extraordinary spectacle and was referred to as The Great Comet at the time.
As well as astronomers, vast swathes of the public marvelled at its presence and many artists were inspired to paint it including William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862), who depicted it over the Thames Valley, James Poole (1804-86), who painted it over the Little London Dam in Sheffield and William Dyce (1806-64) who included it in his painting Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858, a work now in Tate Britain.
Another artist who was evidently fascinated by The Great Comet was George Buchanan Wollaston (1814-99).
He saw it from Chislehurst Common on October 4, 1858, and recorded the view in a small watercolour.
An architect and botanist, he was also a talented draughtsman having been an apprentice in the office of Augustus Pugin no less. He had a strong connection with the locality – his family had lived in Chislehurst for many generations and his grandfather was the local vicar.
Measuring 8¾ x 13¼in (23 x 35cm), the watercolour emerged at auction earlier this year when it shot to prominence itself at south London saleroom Roseberys (25% buyer’s premium) on January 27.
It was estimated at £80-120, a level in line with the handful of auction results that are recorded for Wollaston, but the subject matter ensured fervent competition and it was knocked down at £3000 – a sum 15 times higher than any previous work by the artist sold at auction (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
Any view of Donati’s Comet is rare – and people won’t have a chance to view it again for a long time. Due to its long elliptical orbit, it will not pass by Earth again until approximately the year 3597.
Among the other watercolours at Roseberys bringing strong competition was a small but colourful wartime study by Robert Arthur Wilson (1884-1979).
Dating from 1917, the 5½ x 5in (14 x 13cm) signed work had a label on the back for London dealer Liss Fine Art.
Its early futuristic style, which pointed towards the works of his contemporaries CRW Nevinson and William Roberts, and the estimate of just £100-200 ensured that it generated a high level of interest. It sold for £2000, a price that appears to be an auction record for a print by the artist.
Also commanding attention thanks to a modest estimate was a Rowland Hilder (1905-93) farm landscape pitched at £200-300.
Signed and dated 1944, the 14½ x 19¾in (37 x 50cm) watercolour was a typical work by an artist who appears frequently on the market.
With its good date, pleasing subject and use of light and shadow attracting admirers, it sold at £4000, a sum that was above average for the artist whose main output was views of Kent.