'Dido and Aeneas' by Sir James Thornhill – £21,000 at Woolley & Wallis.

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Offered on August 11-12, they boosted the latest Woolley & Wallis (25% buyer’s premium) picture sale in Salisbury.

The paintings, watercolours and drawings followed other works from the collection sold in Salisbury this year including a Nicobar standing male figure that made £34,000 in June (see ATG No 2499).

Keenly pitched, all bar one of the 109 picture lots sold for a £181,960 total, exceeding the combined top estimate of £83,020.

Acknowledged expert

‘Teddy’ Croft-Murray was a well-known curator, antiquarian and acknowledged expert of early European art and music. He had served among the ‘Monuments Men’ during the Second World War and published many articles and reference books during his long career, including the catalogue Venetian drawings at Windsor Castle which he compiled with Anthony Blunt.

He died unexpectedly while on the tube on route to a meeting at the British Museum. Survived by his second wife Jill for over 40 years, she kept the collection intact at the couple’s home in Richmond, London, until her death last year precipitated the works appearing at auction.

The collection had been formed through purchases made at auction, including at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, purchases from London dealers and also through gifts that the Croft-Murrays had received.

Staircase decoration

The top price came for a painting Edward Croft-Murray had bought from dealership Colnaghi in 1959.

Dido and Aeneas, a 2ft x 17½in (61 x 45cm) oil on canvas by Sir James Thornhill (c.1675-1734), was thought to be a sketch for a painted staircase at Canons, Middlesex – the stately home of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos which was designed by James Gibbs.

Croft-Murray was a leading authority on decorative Baroque painting. His book Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837 remains a key work on the subject. As well as featuring in the first volume of that tome, the Thornhill had also featured in a Country Life article he wrote in 1970 and was exhibited over the years at Marble Hill House in Twickenham, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain. Its decent condition added to its favourable provenance.

Works by Thornhill do not appear very often at auction, especially those linked to a particular commission. However, a design for the saloon ceiling at Blenheim Palace featuring The Apotheosis of Hercule did emerge at Christie’s in June 2005 selling at a record £38,000.

This example was thus an attractive proposition against an estimate of £4000-6000. After being pursued by a number of parties, it was knocked down at £21,000 – the third-highest price for the artist at auction (source: Artprice by Artmarket) and demonstrating how a market still exists for Old Masters with primarily academic appeal.

Grimsthorpe purchase


'The Triumph of Cybele' by Francesco Sleter – £5500 at Woolley & Wallis.

A work in a similar vein, a preliminary study for the ceiling decoration at Grimsthorpe Castle by Francesco Sleter (1685-1775), also attracted decent interest.

The Triumph of Cybele was a smaller 13in x 2ft (33 x 60cm) oil on canvas which the Italian artist had created as a design for the east staircase at the Lincolnshire estate (Sleter also painted the dining room ceiling while Thornhill decorated the other staircase).

One of only two preparatory sketches known by the artist – the other is a sketch for Grimsthorpe dining room’s ceiling now in the Tate Britain collection – it dated from the 1720s when famed architect Sir John Vanbrugh redesigned part of the castle at the request of Robert Bertie, 16th Baron Willoughby de Eresby.

Sleter was first recorded in England in 1719 and the Grimsthorpe paintings are believed to be among his earliest works executed in this country. Today his pictures rarely appear at auction and no entries can be found in online databases.

Estimated at £2000-3000, this example was knocked down at £5500 and was bought on behalf of Grimsthorpe Castle itself.

Picture specialist at Woolley & Wallis Ed Beer said: “I’m delighted that the sketch is returning to its rightful place; it provides a wonderful opportunity for the artist’s initial ideas to be compared to the finished artwork. Very few preliminary sketches survive from this period and only two by Sleter are recorded, so it’s a remarkable painting.”

A Ricci gift


A capriccio with figures among Roman ruins by Marco Ricci – £8000 at Woolley & Wallis.

Among the drawings from the Croft-Murray collection bringing demand was a capriccio with figures among Roman ruins by Marco Ricci (1676-1730).

The 21 x 15in (53 x 37cm) pen and brown ink sketch with brown wash had an early provenance to the artist Paul Sandby (1731-1809) but more recently was owned by Iolo Williams, the museums correspondent of The Times from 1936. Williams and Croft-Murray were friends and one of his descendants had given the drawing to Croft-Murray as a gift.

Ricci drawings have a good following at auction and the £2500-3500 estimate was not deemed excessive, with the price being £8000 – seemingly the highest for a drawing by the artist ever sold in the English regions (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

The Croft-Murray lots provided a decent chunk of Woolley & Wallis’ overall £1.18m hammer total with 83% of the 861 lots sold.

The comparatively large sale was in part due to Covid delays that allowed time for extra consignments.

Beer said: “We were confident prior to the sale that holding it in August would make no difference to our results. In 2020, due to the first lockdown, we had a Modern British & 20th Century sale in August, which was hugely successful, selling over 96%.

"We were strongly of the opinion that the important thing was to hold the sale at a time when our clients could come and view in person. The three days of viewing were extremely busy and we believe the results justified delaying the sale.”

Carpeaux in oils


'L’amour désarmé' by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux – £35,000 at Woolley & Wallis.

A number of separately consigned Old Masters drew the highest bids of the day.

L’amour désarmé by French artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) came to auction from a “very good” UK private collection.

Primarily a sculptor, paintings by the artist appear much less frequently and, when they do, tend to command much less money.

The 18¼ x 11¼in (46 x 29cm) oil on panel here relates to a well-known bronze showing Cupid being disarmed by Psyche. Eugénie Fiocre, the principal ballerina at the Paris Opéra from 1864-75 and friend of the sculptor was the model for Psyche. Although a plaster model was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1870, Carpeaux never executed the intended life-size marble version. Instead, a series of bronzes were cast after his death.

The existence of this oil - which may have been executed while Carpeaux was formulating ideas for the sculpture - was known, although a 1999 exhibition catalogue listed its whereabouts as untraced.

Again an academically interesting work, the picture was helped by its market freshness and attractive £4000-6000 estimate in particular.

At the sale, two phone bidders competed keenly before it was knocked down at £35,000. The buyer was a private collector and the price looked relatively strong compared to most other paintings by Carpeaux sold at auction in the last 10 years.

'Missing version'

Making a slightly higher sum and the top price of the sale overall was The Laughing Girl, a work catalogued as a ‘fine example of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ ‘fancy pictures’ which has not been seen since 1937’. Pictured in ATG No 2498, it had been hanging for decades on the walls of a family home, with the vendors always believing it to be a copy.

“The catalogue raisonné lists four versions by Reynolds,” said Beer. “Of those, one is listed as being at Petworth, two in private collections and ours is untraced. There are also numerous copies, testament to its popularity, but there was complete consensus that this was the missing autograph version.”

Estimated at £15,000-20,000, it drew interest on the phone from “across the board” before it was sold at £37,000 to an American private buyer who bid online.