Anthurium by Ithell Colquhoun – £205,000 at Bonhams.

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Plenty of significant prices came for Modern British pictures in the final quarter of 2022, both in London and the regions where this market continues to gain traction.

The overall total from the specialist London sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams in October and November was £34.4m including premium, a figure roughly on a par with the £35.3m from the equivalent sales last year.

Adding in a bumper selection of Mod Brits that sold during the ‘Frieze week’ sales in October, such as the record for Frank Auerbach when a study of his most famed sitter, Head of J.Y.M, was knocked down at £4.7m at Sotheby’s, the aggregate performance of the autumn sales in this category was more than satisfactory.

Works commanding the headlines included LS Lowry’s Going to the Match that sold for a record £6.6m to The Lowry in Salford at Christie’s Modern British & Irish Art evening sale on October 19 (see ATG No 2565), as well as a Duncan Grant (1885-1978) painting depicting Vanessa Bell that sold for £260,000 at Bonhams in New Bond Street on November 22, equalling the record for a Bloomsbury Group picture (see ATG No 2570).

‘Magic realism’

However, one of the pictures further down the price scale arguably making an even more stellar price came at the Mod Brit sale at Bonhams Knightsbridge on November 23.

The work in question was an example of what artist Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88) described as her ‘magic realism’ or ‘super realism’ style.

Bonhams had more than an inkling that this lot would do well – not least after strenuous competition came at the same auction house in September 2021 for Colquhoun’s Battle Fury of Cuchullin which flew past a £2000-3000 estimate and sold for a record £30,000.

This sum was then topped in September this year when another painting, Still Water from 1947, sold at £42,000. Both of those lots had appeared in Bonhams’ sales dedicated to female Modern British artists (branded as ‘Blazing a Trail’ auctions).

Colquhoun is clearly having a ‘moment’ as more attention is being placed both on women artists and early British Surrealism, of which Colquhoun was an exponent. Even still, few could have predicted the level of demand for the latest consignment.

However, you could argue that as the artist’s life story, as well as her esoteric artistic vision, seems to have quickly become a great subject of fascination, the market seems to be reacting accordingly.

In her day she worked in relative obscurity but her exploration of varied themes ranging from Celtic identity, feminism, magic and occultism in both her art and writing is now emerging from the shadows.

Curatorially her work was traditionally branded with other occultists on the margins of art history, but this has begun to change and her role at the centre of the British Surrealist movement in the 1930s in particular is now being acknowledged more fully (although she ‘officially’ walked away from the group in 1940).

In 2019 the Tate collection acquired Colquhoun’s 5000-piece archive while in 2020 the first in-depth biography of the artist written by Amy Hale was published.

The latest picture at Bonhams was an earlier work than the two previous record-breaking pictures.

Anthurium dated from 1936 and was painted during a transitional moment in her career. It was created at a time when she was moving away from the traditional style she had been taught at the Slade School of Art and more towards an experimental Surrealism. In the same year she had viewed the London International Surrealist Exhibition where the works of Salvador Dalí had a major impact on both her technique and world view.

Influenced by Dalí, for a short period she began painting plants and flowers with exaggerated details but using a limited palette against plain backgrounds to give them an other-worldliness. Anthurium was a typical example of this approach and the Bonhams catalogue described it as one of the ‘finest paintings in this style’. It was originally exhibited at one of Colquhoun’s first solo shows, held at The Fine Art Society in November 1936.

A preparatory drawing of the picture is part of the Tate Archive.

Colossal Colquhoun record

The 2ft 8in x 20¼in (82 x 52cm) signed oil on canvas came to auction from a private UK vendor who seemingly acquired it the 1980s. It is likely that even a sum within the £8000-12,000 estimate would have represented a major return for the owner.

But with interest in the artist on such a high currently, together with this picture’s subject and date boosting its appeal, it drew prolonged bidding before it was knocked down at £205,000, a huge record for Colquhoun and moving her into a new league commercially. With premium added, the price was £258,600.

Bonhams would release no details about the buyer other than to say the work is going overseas.

The auction house’s head of Modern British and Irish art Penny Day said: “Ever since the success of Ithell Colquhoun’s works in our Blazing a Trail: Modern British Women sales we have seen a marked increase in interest and demand for her paintings, so we are not surprised that Anthurium was so hotly contested. We will be including more works by her in next year’s Blazing a Trail sale in autumn 2023.”