After a relative famine over the previous two Covid-hit summers, a glut of consignments came forth and a series of notable sums and a smattering of record results were posted at different price points.
In terms of the overall totals, comparisons with previous years are difficult because of the way the calendar has changed. But, it can safely be said, the first half of 2022 has been a bumper period with the amount of money changing hands close to, if not exceeding, the previous high for an equivalent period set in 2018.
Christie’s shifted its sales to earlier in the year and staged a £30.6m Mod Brit series back in March – the highest in this category since before the pandemic. It then raised a further £8m in May from the dedicated sale of the collection of the financier and former chairman of the London Stock Exchange Sir Nicholas Goodison, who died last year.
Sotheby’s, meanwhile, held a special sale of British art branded as The Jubilee Auction at the end of June that made £72.3m with Mod Brit works contributing significantly. It also had a regular day sale that added £6.9m to the bottom line.
With these calendar changes and one-off events, it was only Bonhams (27.5/25/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) which stuck to the regular schedule with its traditional flagship sale of Modern British art in New Bond Street held at the end of June followed by a Knightsbridge auction in early July.
The former event had some notable lots (more of which later), but the latter also included its fair share of eyecatching pictures too.
Among those was a monumental aerial view over Westminister by David Shepherd (1931-2017). Best known for his wildlife paintings and conservation work, the 5ft 4in x 8ft (1.63 x 2.45m) signed oil on canvas represented a rare opportunity to acquire a non-animal subject by him.
While few examples have emerged in the last few years, aviation subjects were a common feature of his earlier oeuvre (steam trains were also a lifelong favourite). Indeed, at the start of his career he focused primarily on industrial and aeronautical scenes, obtaining a permit for Heathrow Airport and painting commissions, largely of planes, for the Royal Air Force and the British Overseas Airways Corporation.
The picture at Bonhams was a finely crafted and detailed cityscape that demonstrated his fascination with topography and architecture as well as his early love of flying. It was also fairly well known, having appeared in a print book in the late 1980s.
But would it prove as commercial as one of his more prevalent images of elephants, lions and tigers?
Given no comparable work had seemingly emerged before, it was not an easy lot to estimate. The highest price for a non-wildlife subject by Shepherd before this sale was a painting of a steam train from 1995 titled Heavy Freight 67 that sold for £52,000 at Christie’s back in 2001.
Bonhams plumped for a £30,000- 50,000 pitch, a level that did not look unreasonable to a number of keen parties. After a decent competition, it was knocked down at £88,000 to a UK private buyer.
As well as setting the third-highest price for the artist at auction (in fact, it was only £12,000 short of the record according to Artprice), it led the Knightsbridge sale and helped lift the overall hammer total to £603,650 from 168 lots (of which 130, or 82%, sold).
Gore as a contrast
Making a lesser sum but bringing even more competition was a smaller and contrasting work by Frederick Gore (1913-2009).
Les Baux, a 20¼in x 2ft (52 x 62cm) oil on canvas, was one of the artist’s colourful plein-air views of the south of France which he produced both before and after the Second World War.
As well as his views of Majorca, Gore’s pictures of the rich hinterland of Provence are highly sought after. One larger example from 1972 recently lifted the artist’s market, setting a new high for Gore at auction last year. Showing a brightly textured landscape near Mérindol, it sold for £42,000 at Christie’s sale of the collection of Mrs Henry Ford II in April 2021.
This signed example from 1951 at Bonhams had provenance to London’s The Mayor Gallery and came to auction having descended through the vendor’s family.
With its good colouring, date and subject, the estimate of £4000-6000 was not deemed excessive and it sold at £14,000. The sum, while not quite at the very summit, ranks in the premier league of the artist’s auction prices.
Meanwhile, Bonhams’ Modern British and Irish Art sale in New Bond Street on June 22 was led by an oil and pencil on board which set a record for any picture by Dame Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) – see ATG No 2550.
Estimated at £120,000-180,000, it was knocked down at a cool £410,000 and boosted the sale to a £3.48m total including premium, with 56 of the 65 lots sold (86%).
The sale’s other stand-out lot was a work painted by Christopher Wood (1901-30) during a mercurial two-week spell in the village of Mousehole in Cornwall not long before his untimely death. During this period he told his friend and fellow artist Ben Nicholson how he was “absolutely deliriously happy” as he painted the boats in the tiny harbour, the surrounding houses and narrow lanes.
The 16 x 20in (41 x 51cm) oil on board titled Drying Sails, Mousehole, Cornwall was similar in style and composition to a larger painting now in Manchester Art Gallery and also showing figures ambling along the quay outside the Ship Inn, a pub which remains to this day.
The naïve style of these works showed the effect the older artist Alfred Wallis had had on Wood’s work (the two had met two years earlier). The simplistic forms and colouring also demonstrated the way his technique was progressing at this time. The fact that it was painted barely five months before the artist committed suicide also gave it a certain poignancy.
It was originally acquired by the Elmhirst family, who owned other works by the artist, and came to auction from a private UK collection according to the Bonhams catalogue. It was also listed on the website of Jethro Marles, a jewellery dealer who, among other services, advises clients on auction sales.
At Bonhams it was estimated at £80,000-120,000, the kind of level which a good Christopher Wood might make. But the fact that it was a rarely available example from such a key, but very short, period ensured it was a much more valuable proposition. On the day, competition came from a number of different parties before it took £380,000, going to a buyer in the room.
The price eclipsed the previous record for the artist at auction which dated back to 2003 when Sotheby’s sold Drying Nets, Treboul Harbour for £340,000. As with a number of other prices this summer, it was the kind of result that would have given encouragement to the Mod Brit sector generally.
Wallis special provenance
The Bonhams sale also offered seven works by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) himself which saw some good action, all of them selling for a combined £343,000.
The pick of the bunch was a view of Mount’s Bay with St Michael’s Mount, a popular subject for the artist depicting a stretch of coastline that features repeatedly in his work.
The 9¼ x 13in (24 x 33cm) signed oil on panel had numerous factors in its favour. It featured two boats in customary primitive style and showed coastal landmarks that the artist knew well from his days working in merchant shipping, such as the mount itself and the Lizard lighthouse. The large ship itself was seemingly based on Belleaventure, a brigantine on board which he had served when returning from a voyage to Newfoundland.
It also had a special provenance having been once owned by Nicholson and Hepworth (the former had famously ‘discovered’ Wallis in St Ives in 1928 and became his earliest champion).
The painting had then been given as a gift to Misome Peile, an artist who studied at the St Ives School of painting and then joined the Newlyn Society of Artists, before passing through London gallery Crane Kalman from where it was acquired by the family of the vendor in 1986.
Pitched at £30,000-50,000, it sold at £95,000 – the second-highest price for Wallis at auction after St Ives Bay with Godrevy that sold for £120,000 at Sotheby’s in 2021.