In particular, a number of young Jamaican men were much in demand as life models providing the touch of exoticism and the element of ‘forbidden fruit’ welcomed in avant garde circles.
Gemma Romain’s Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica: The Biography of Patrick Nelson, 1916-1963 (2017) charts the colourful life of one such model. Nelson had come to Britain in 1937 to work as an aristocratic valet in rural Wales but within a year he was studying law in London and found work posing as a life model for both Duncan Grant and his South African-born Bloomsbury associate Edward Wolfe.
He became one of Grant’s lovers in the late 1930s, their relationship documented through letters and paintings completed before and after the Second World War (as part of the Pioneer Corps Nelson was captured at Dunkirk and held in various prison camps until his release in late 1944).
The portrait offered by Lyon & Turnbull as part of the firm’s Modern Made sale on April 30 is one of the best-known images of Nelson. Painted by Edward Wolfe (1897-1982), c.1938, it has appeared in two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain: as part of A Model’s Life: Spaces of Black Modernism 1919-1939 (2014-15) and again at Queer British Art 1861-1967 (2017).
It was described in the latter: “Wolfe’s depiction of Nelson against the rich green background is exoticising and his pose invites the viewer to admire his body Such objectification was typical of many depictions of black men from this time and reflects an uneven power dynamic, although Nelson’s friendship with members of the Bloomsbury group adds a level of complexity to the relationship between artist and sitter.”
In short, this is a picture that has become important to rewriting British black and LGBTQ history.
It was one of seven Bloomsbury-style oils by Wolfe that came for sale from what L&T specialist Philip Smith described as “a private collection with associations to the artist”. Of the other works, the best-seller was a 1942 portrait titled Joanne Vaughan in Black Dress sold at £3200.
However, guided at £4000-6000, Portrait of Pat Nelson prompted a deluge of interest and bidding to match. There was institutional interest in the picture, but it was bought for a UK private collection at £95,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
The previous high for the artist appears to be shared at £9200 by Girl on a chair sold by Christie’s in 1988 and Portrait of Aisha sold in 2010 by Strauss & Co in Wolfe’s native South Africa. It speaks volumes as to changes in collecting taste that in 2002 Duncan Grant’s Portrait of Pat Nelson, painted in the early 1960s on Nelson’s return to London from Jamaica, took just £875 at Christie’s South Kensington and then failed to sell at Sotheby’s Olympia in 2004.