The textile designer and academic, who taught at St Martin’s School of Art and Design and was also a director for Liberty of London, lived at a Philip Webb-built house in Glebe Place, Chelsea. Famously the property had featured in the 1987 film Withnail and I as Uncle Monty’s townhouse.
The film became a cult-classic and still has a huge following. When Christie’s South Kensington offered 227 lots of the paintings, furniture and furnishings from Nevill’s home in 2011 they raised £471,400, more than double what was expected.
Another 109 lots were offered at Bellmans’ auction in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on February 22-24, of which 22 had appeared in the film – the auction house used a carrot symbol to denote which items featured in Withnail and I in a separately produced lot list (if you are not familiar with the film, keep reading to find out why).
One of the best-remembered scenes took place in Nevill’s luxurious living room where Uncle Monty (played by the late Richard Griffiths) extols the virtues of vegetables as opposed to flowers, saying “I often think cauliflower more beautiful than the rose” and “I think the carrot infinitely more fascinating than the geranium. The carrot has mystery. Flowers are essentially tarts. Prostitutes for the bees. There is, you’ll agree, a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about a firm, young carrot.”
In the background
The picture that appears on a wall in the background of the scene was one of the lots attracting most interest at Bellmans.
The painting of Lady Hamilton from 1905 by Henry Harris Brown (1864-1948) represented a rare appearance at auction for a work by the artist who was from Northamptonshire and mostly practised formal portraiture. His track record commercially is not extensive – Artprice records only 21 entries.
The highest price before this sale was £3500, a sum achieved both by a portrait of Robert Hoare Hull sold at Bonhams in 2019 and a genre scene titled Celebrating at the Feast sold at Christie’s in 2008.
The £1500-2500 estimate at Bellmans was in line with previous results for the artist. However, the fact that this 4ft 6in x 3ft (1.36m x 91cm) signed oil on canvas certainly had some painterly flourish and had appeared in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in the year it was painted, added to its appeal. Along with its connection to the film, this ensured it flew over the predicted levels.
On the day, after a strong competition, it was knocked down at £13,000 to a private collector on the phone, more than tripling the artist’s auction record in the process.
A cigarette with Hockney
Incidentally, the large Chesterfield sofa that also appeared in the same Withnail and I scene also drew plenty of interest, surpassing a £4000-6000 estimate to sell for £9500 despite being in rather worn condition. It sold to Conrad Frankel, one of Bernard Nevill’s godsons who bought a number of lots of the sale.
“Bernard was a wonderful godfather and he taught me a lot about art and design,” he said. “I really wanted to buy a few things that reminded me of the times I spent in his magnificent house in Chelsea… It was the place to meet many well-known artists and I even had a cigarette with David Hockney on that sofa.”
Frankel himself is an artist who has a solo show opening on May 1 at the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Dublin. It focuses on art relating to the war in Ukraine, with 20% of the sales going to the Ukraine relief effort.
Another dazzling portrait from the Nevill consignment at Bellmans but this time having not appeared in Withnail and I also brought significant bidding. Portrait of Clara Flower by Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) was a well-known work among the artist’s followers and caught the eye of a number of bidders.
Going back, it had featured in Esther Wood’s book on the artist published at the end of the 19th century, while its later provenance included London dealer JS Maas in the 1960s. It had subsequently appeared at dedicated Sandys’ exhibitions at Brighton Art Gallery and Sheffield’s Mappin Art Gallery.
The sitter, who was in her early 20s at the time this 2ft 1in x 201/4in (64 x 52cm) portrait was painted, was the sister of Cyril Flower, 1st Baron Battersea. The liberal politician and patron of Pre-Raphaelite artists was also painted by Sandys at least once – a coloured chalk on paper that the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878 and later sold for £28,000 at Sotheby’s in 1992.
The portrait of Clara at Bellmans was in the same size and medium as that of Cyril, and the two pictures were inscribed in the same way with the signature, date and sitter appearing as a painted label to one of the corners. Here the condition was described by the saleroom as ‘generally good’, although it had some light foxing to the lower section.
Estimated at £6000-8000, it sold at £21,000 to a phone bidder, a good sum for a work on paper by the artist and the top lot of both the Nevill collection and the Bellmans sale overall.
A large and scenic picture of a still pond in a formal garden by Thomas Mostyn (1864-1930) also attracted competition despite not being in the best condition.
Peace, a 5ft 9in x 7ft 9in (1.75 x 2.36m) signed oil on canvas, had some areas of paint loss, separation and lifting possibly caused by fire or heat damage, while the frame also had some knocks and marks.
Idealistic garden scenes such as this are the most recognised part of the artist’s oeuvre and the large scale, elegant composition and level of detail suggested this was a major work.
The estimate of £5000-8000 was therefore not deemed excessive by a number of interested parties and, on the day, it was duly bid to a final £16,000. The price was the fifth highest at auction for the artist but a record for a garden scene (source: Artprice).
Overall the Nevill collection raised a hammer total of over £250,000, four times its low estimate, with proceeds going to benefit UK charities.