Contrasting works by John Bratby (1908-92) drew interest in different parts of the country over recent months.
A bright and colourful large-scale depiction of sunflowers emerged at the timed online sale at Halls (20% buyer’s premium) which closed on May 2.
It came to the Modern and Contemporary Art Auction from a local private collection having been purchased by the vendor’s father who was a controller at the BBC.
The 4ft x 3ft (1.22m x 91cm) signed oil on canvas was one of numerous examples of the subject by the artist, the like of which he painted right up towards the end of his life.
While his earlier ‘Kitchen Sink’ subjects tend to be more prized, both curatorially and commercially, his still-life and floral compositions crop up regularly on the market and generally attract decent levels of bidding.
The highest price at auction for such a work is the £19,000 at Christie’s in 2017 for Birds and Flowers, a painting from 1972 which was even larger than the picture at Halls.
The 4ft x 3ft (1.22m x 91cm) signed oil on canvas here was a good signed example. It was billed by the Shropshire saleroom as a “bursting with vibrant colour” and demonstrating “Bratby’s skilful use of colour and line”.
Estimated at £5000-7000, bidders responded to its exuberance and energetic brushstrokes and it sold at £8500 to a UK private buyer. The price compared well with a few similar examples sold recently. Two Bratby sunflower pictures from 1990 sold for £9000 and £8500 apiece at Bonhams in April while one of artichokes in flower made £8000 at the same sale.
Making a fair bit more was an earlier work with more of a gritty urban focus – the kind of picture which Bratby produced during the highpoint of his career as young man.
The artist painted prolifically over the course of his life and, despite the abundance at auction, works such as this from his most creative period have become increasingly scarce.
Appearing at Lyon & Turnbull’s (25% buyer’s premium) sale of Contemporary & Post-War Art on April 6, the substantially sized untitled painting was painted in 1958 as part of a commission for the film The Horse’s Mouth based on Joyce Cary’s novel.
In the film, the character of Gully Jimson, an eccentric figurative painter, was played by Alec Guinness who took direct inspiration for the role from Bratby, visiting his studio to observe him at work. Guinness went on to win best actor at the Venice International Film Festival for the role.
The 5ft 11 x 7ft 11in (1.8 x 2.4m) oil on board at the Edinburgh sale was part of a group of paintings with a panoramic perspective associated with the film and which were produced not long after Bratby’s solo exhibition at The French Gallery on Madison Avenue, his first show in New York. Indeed, 1958 was a key time for the artist – he jointly won the British Guggenheim Award with Ben Nicholson that year.
This example had plenty of trademark features including the lurid colour palette, the heavy impasto and the focus on the textures and patterns of the architectural environment, such as the red terracotta floor tiles and the brickwork of the terrace walls. It also had a figurative element with the presence of the mother, child and dog to the left of the painting sitting on a wall.
When it comes to this artistic genre (the ‘Kitchen Sink’ or ‘New Realist’ painters), the fact that these movements were born out of the grey rubble and grinding drabness of postwar Britain means that it is often the case of the drearier the better commercially.
This picture, which had been purchased directly from the artist and changed hands only once since, therefore had a lot going for it.
Not only was it an appealing proposition against a £6000-9000 because of its subject, date, colours and composition, it was also the kind of work that has become increasingly hard to find and therefore likely to draw out some of the artist’s longstanding followers as well as some new Bratby buyers.
After generating strong interest as anticipated from both the trade and private buyers, it was knocked down at £22,000 to a local collector who normally collects contemporary Scottish pictures but seemed to be branching out.
The sum represented the highest price for Bratby at auction in a decade other than two works with a special provenance: a portrait of Sir Michael Caine that made £25,000 at Bonhams as part of the dispersal of the actor’s personal collection and a view of Venice that took £24,000 as part of the sale of David Bowie’s collection at Sotheby’s in 2016.
It was also above the £15,000 for another picture from Bratby’s Horses Mouth series that came from the same source and sold at Lyon & Turnbull in 2018.