And so it proved for a consignment matching both descriptions at a recent Gloucestershire sale.
On offer was a large group of items from the collection of the art historian, curator and broadcaster Sir Roy Strong. Amassed with the help of his late wife, the set designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, the works drew plenty of interest at Chorley’s (22.5% buyer’s premium) in Cheltenham on April 27.
The pictures, costume designs, photographs, works of art, furniture and antiques, as well as some of Sir Roy’s trademark flamboyant garments, came from the couple’s rural Herefordshire home, The Laskett. They lived there for over 40 years and together created one of the most renowned private gardens in the country.
Julia died of pancreatic cancer in 2003 and Sir Roy, now 85, decided to downsize last year. In August he bequeathed the house and garden to the horticultural charity Perennial which has opened it to the public and Sir Roy, moving from the 24-bedroom property to a two-bedroom townhouse in nearby Ledbury, took the opportunity to have a major clear-out.
The 477 lots at the auction represented the bulk of the collection from The Laskett – all of the pictures, for example, were hanging on the walls somewhere in the house.
Bursting with art
Director and auctioneer Simon Chorley told ATG that he first went to the property last June after a contact who had worked there had recommended the Cheltenham firm.
“Almost every square inch inside was covered with art and objects but it was beautifully furnished,” said Chorley.
While Sir Roy initially selected 70 items to sell, the consignment grew over the following months as the auctioneers made subsequent visits to the property, although the planned date of sale itself had to be pushed back due to the second lockdown last year. With live events able to restart recently, the sale was announced at the end of March.
“The telephone was going incessantly,” said Chorley, “not just from clients but also the press.” The auctioneers also had to add an extra day to the viewing such was the interest from people wanting to attend.
In terms of the auction itself, Chorley felt that the extra interest in the items due to the connection to Sir Roy was reflected in the final prices.
The sale was dominated by private bidders although there was some decent trade interest as well as some keen participation from people who knew Sir Roy personally.
Overall the collection raised a hammer total of £182,000 with only four lots failing to sell and many making significant multiples of their estimates.
'Odd potpourri of stuff'
As you might expect from someone who served as director of both the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum the works included some notable pictures, including some relating to the worlds of theatre, ballet and opera which pointed more toward Julia’s vocation (she had worked at the Royal Opera House, the Glyndebourne Festival, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company).
In a recent interview with The Times, Sir Roy insisted that he and his wife were never collectors as such but had acquired works mainly through gifts, inheritance and friendships. The collection represented an “odd potpourri of stuff”, he said, “reflecting the lives of two people who moved in the arts in a particular period”.
While a few of his famous silk coats (offered as individual lots) and his ‘outrageous’ shirts and jackets (organised into group lots) sold in the £100-200 range, the pick of the Old Masters in the sale (a subject in which Strong specialised) was an 3ft 8in x 2ft 11in (1.11m x 88cm) oil on panel.
Catalogued as a 17th century English School portrait of Anne Shirley, an Elizabethan lady who married into the Brooke family from Shropshire, it had a Latin inscription stating that it dated from 1603 when the sitter was 47.
With a coat-of-arms to the upper left, the work attracted good interest against a £1000-2000 estimate even though the fact that it was heavily restored may well have limited its value. It sold at £6500.
Despite some decent action among the 20 or so other Old Masters at the sale, it was a sketch by David Hockney (b.1937) that proved the financial highlight of the collection.
The couple knew the artist well. In his diaries, the third volume of which was published in November, Sir Roy said of Hockney: “He remains on my rather short list of originals.”
The top lot of the collection, it was a reflection of their personal acquaintance – a portrait study of Sir Roy himself that Hockney had made at Cecil Beaton’s house on a weekend stay in May 1969.
The 13¼ x 9¾in (34 x 25cm) pencil drawing was a bit faint and had some slight discolouration to the paper, but the face was deemed well executed while the combination of artist and sitter lent obvious appeal. It also had a good date for a Hockney drawing plus it was made just two years after Sir Roy was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery, aged 32.
At the sale, it generated substantial interest, especially against the £4000-6000 estimate which was quickly surpassed. It was eventually knocked down at £19,000 to the UK trade.
Two prints by Hockey also sold above predictions. One was a portrait of fellow artist Richard Hamilton, an etching from 1971 which was one of 11 artist’s proofs (an edition of 30 was also printed).
Having been given by the artist as a wedding gift to Sir Roy and Julia, it carried the artist’s signature and an inscription in red crayon reading: For Roy and Julia from David H Oct 1971.
The print shows Hamilton sitting on a chair smoking – an image captured by Hockney on a trip to the coastal town of Cadaqués in northeast Spain where Hamilton had bought a house and made a notable body of work himself.
Estimated at £2000-3000, it sold at £6000 to a UK private buyer. Other than another artist’s proof from the collection of artist RB Kitaj that made £8400 at Christie’s in February 2008, this appears to be the highest sum for this print at auction.
The other Hockney print was an etching and aquatint Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria which was from an edition of 75. Produced for the artist’s project ‘Illustrations for Fourteen Poems by CP Cavafy’, the impression here was signed and dated 66 and was a good clean copy depicting the bespectacled Greek poet. Estimated at £400-600, it took £2800, again selling to a UK private buyer.
Another art world figure that the Strongs knew well, Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-80), was represented by eight works in the sale. Strong had famously staged the first photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery when 600 Beaton portraits went on display in 1968 – a show that was part of his project to transform the conservative image of the institution.
Included in the auction were a handful of Beaton’s photographs of Sir Roy himself that made between £200-850. However, the lot that drew the most attention at Chorley’s was Beaton’s sketch of Lady Diana Cooper – a sitter whose life as the daughter of a duke, a celebrated debutante, actress, wife of a famous diplomat, lady of letters and character in at least half a dozen famous novels remains a subject of great fascination.
Beaton was a friend of the sitter and some of his photographs of her are now part of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Sir Roy also became a friend after meeting her through Beaton and this pencil sketch, which showed her in a wide-brimmed hat, was believed to date from the late 1930s.
Estimated at £600-800, it sold at £6000 to the UK trade. Beaton drawings can make substantially more, particularly for more worked up examples, but this price exceeded the £1600 for an ink and watercolour of Diana and her husband Duff Cooper sold from the Vivien Leigh collection at Sotheby’s in September 2017.
Sketches relating to the theatre, ballet and opera were a notable feature of the lots from The Laskett, the home of Sir Roy Strong and his wife Julia Trevelyan Oman, sold by Chorley’s.
Uppermost among them in terms of price was a simple watercolour of the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina in the title role in Fokine’s Firebird.
It was drawn by Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), the only artist allowed access behind the scenes at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, and this 13¾ x 9½in (35 x 24cm) signed sketch had stayed with her all her life and later sold at the sale of her studio.
Estimated here at £600-800, it sold at £3800 to a UK private buyer, a sum in the upper bracket for one of the artist’s ballet sketches.
Among the 16 costume designs in the sale was a work by the Greek designer Nicholas Georgiadis – a signed watercolour of Rudolf Nureyev’s costume for The Nutcracker at The Royal Opera House in 1968.
Estimated at £800-1200, it took £1500, again selling to a UK private buyer.