Large-scale and important pictures by Forbes, often described as the ‘father’ of the group of artists who settled in the Cornish fishing village in the late 19th century, are not in strong supply and it has been over four years since one emerged at auction.
Soldiers and Sailors, a 4ft 11in x 6ft 3in (1.5 x 1.9m) oil on canvas depicting Salvation Army members in full song on the banks of a harbour, had been exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1891.
It came to the saleroom from a family that had acquired it privately in 1982 and had earlier provenance to the mine owner and art collector George McCulloch, who paid £900 for it shortly after it was completed. It may also have been in the collection Lady Louis Mountbatten in the first half of the 20th century.
It later came to be held by one Mr Boyle, an art dealer in Brighton in the 1950s, but by this time it had become un-stretched and rolled up, possibly to protect it during the Blitz.
While the fact that it had never been offered at auction stood in its favour, the condition was more of an issue – it had been restored twice and it was a matter of conjecture as to whether the removal of the additional layers of restoration and varnish would reveal the underlying quality of the painting.
A number of parties who may otherwise have been interested therefore held back, but one dealer who decided to make the trip to Cornwall to view it was David Messum.
The dealer who has been handling Newlyn School pictures since the mid-1970s and who now has premises in both London and Buckinghamshire was impressed with the work and said it was possibly the only one by Forbes from this period and on this scale not in a museum. “It’s a very important work, but I didn’t think I’d be able to buy it,” he told ATG.
At the auction, the bidding opened below £100,000 and went up in increments of £1000 as Messum competed with a private collector and a local institution. The dealer eventually secured it at £155,000 (plus 18% buyer’s premium).
“It’s an evocative piece of English social realism – ‘honest endeavour’ was the watchword for the Newlyn school at this time.
“The scene was clearly quite an occasion with the drumming and singing of gospel songs, and the crowd of figures, including the children and the old seaman, made for a real suite of character studies.”
Messum conceded that it may have made more had the condition been different but remained hopeful that any defects could be rectified. “Crucially the lining is good, so we’re hoping some further restoration and cleaning will come off.”
He aims to exhibit it alongside two further major Newlyn School paintings he has in stock – Frank Bramley’s Weaving a chain of grief and Thomas Cooper Gotch’s Sharing the Catch, the latter shown alongside Soldiers and Sailors at the 1891 RA show.
The price in Cornwall appears to be the fifth highest at auction for Forbes but the highest for one sold outside London (source: Artprice).
In general terms, works depicting sunnier scenes with fishing boats tend to make higher prices – most spectacularly when The Seine Boat from 1904 made a record £1.1m at Phillips back in June 2000 (a picture which Messum himself had sold some years before).
The work though made the highest price for a Newlyn picture at David Lay, although it stands behind an oil by Indian artist Ram Kumar which sold for £170,000 in terms of the auction house’s top-selling paintings. The house record at the Penzance saleroom remains a Chippendale bookcase that fetched £230,000 back in the 1980s.