The question of ‘what to buy’ is often at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to investing in art.
But, as those with experience of the stockmarket will tell you, the issue of ‘when to sell’ is just as important and is frequently more difficult to work out.
Indeed, if you happen to be lucky enough to own a few works by a particular artist or group of artists on the rise, it is not always easy to determine the best moment to release them. Quite often it seems your best bet is simply to hold onto them.
One such area is pictures by the East Anglian school of artists – the group centred on the art college at Benton End in Suffolk set up by painter-plantsman Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines in 1937-38.
As reported previously on these pages, the prices of Morris flower paintings have risen hugely over the last five years but a few other names who followed in their tutors’ footsteps appear to be on the increase too. The question for owners, therefore, is whether to cash in now while the going seems good or wait to see if the upward trend continues.
Currently Benton End, the Tudor farmhouse on the outskirts of Hadleigh which was home to Morris’ East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing for four decades, is being revived as a centre for art and horticulture.
Along with the recently opened dedicated exhibition of works by Benton End artists at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester, this may well give a further boost to artists associated with the school – not just Morris, whose commercial prospects have certainly benefited from three shows since 2018 (at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, another at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury and one at the Philip Mould gallery in central London).
Coinciding with the Firstsite show, works by two members of the East Anglian school – Lucy Harwood (1893-1972) and Allan Walton (1892-1948) – emerged at Cambridge saleroom Cheffins (24.5% buyer’s premium).
Director of Cheffins’ fine art division Brett Tryner said: “Cedric Morris is certainly seeing a renaissance in popularity and, as contemporary tastes continue to bend towards colour, pattern and figurative painting, it is likely that collectors will look to buy up works by lesser-known members of the group for a potential investment.”
On the rising popularity of Harwood, he said: “I remember selling paintings by her around a decade ago for just a few hundred pounds, whereas they can now make sums well into the thousands. Values for her pictures have risen around tenfold over the past decade and we expect this to continue.”
The works at Cheffins were offered at the Art & Design auction on February 24. They followed the successful sale last May of the collection of dealer Sally Hunter at Essex auction house Sworders which set records for both Harwood and Walton.
The nine paintings by the two artists in Cambridge came from a private London collector and, in fact, had been bought at Sally Hunter Fine Art over 20 years ago. Pitched here at highly attainable levels, they drew considerable presale interest and all of them duly sold well above estimate for a combined £30,200.
Three flower works by Harwood in particular drew competition, selling to three different buyers each for the same price – the second highest for the artist at auction.
Suffolk-born Harwood was one of the first artists to join the East Anglian school in 1937 and was one of its longest-serving students. She was regarded as a Benton End institution and was a key figure in its social life according to Maggi Hambling, another of the school’s alumni.
While she produced landscapes and a few portraits, her still-lifes especially show how she was greatly influenced by Morris and they are regarded as her most commercial pictures.
Two of the works here had previously part of Morris’ collection and were included in his estate when he died in 1982. One of them was Still Life with Paper Whites, a 2ft 1in x 17¼in (64.5 x 44cm) oil on canvas. A decade after Morris’ death, the picture had appeared in an exhibition at Sally Hunter’s gallery in London.
Although its date was not specified in the catalogue, it had many trademark features of her work from the 1930s-40s including the thick brushstrokes and restrained palette. With the bar for her work raised by the £7500 for Traction Engines Resting, sold at Sworders last year, here the picture flew over a £600-800 estimate before it was knocked down at £6500 to a private online buyer in Somerset.
The same sum was bid for Still Life with Daisies and Grapes, a 23¼ x 19½in (59 x 50cm) oil on canvas which was signed on the reverse. Again, it had previously been part of the estate of Cedric Morris and had featured in the 1992 Sally Hunter exhibition, although here the picture had also featured in a show at Ipswich Museum in 1987. Estimated at £500- 800, this time the successful bidder was a private buyer in Suffolk.
The trade was certainly active in this section of the auction and the third Harwood flower painting that also took £6500 online from a Suffolk dealer. Still Life with Pumpkins, a 2ft 5in x 19¾in (74 x 50cm) oil on canvas, had a bonus – the reverse was painted with a garden scene.
Interest from different parties also came for the five Allan Walton pictures which raised a combined £9500.
Walton, perhaps best known as a textile designer, joined the Benton End group at the outbreak of the Second World War and made frequent visits to the school and even taught there on occasion.
Again, a new benchmark for the artist had been set at the Sworders sale last year, in this case the £5550 for a view of the Suffolk coast titled Bawdsey End, Old Felixstowe. The Cheffins sale duly set the second and third-highest auction prices for the artist with Still Life with Flowers on a Stool, leading the group at £3600. Interestingly, the 2ft 11in x 19¾in (90 x 50cm) oil on canvas must have predated the establishment of the East Anglia school as, according to the catalogue, it was exhibited at the London Artist’s Association from 1926-33.
While it had a few fine cracks to the areas where paint had been thickly applied and the frame had chips and knocks throughout, it was deemed an attractively colourful work and an excellent proposition against a £400-600 estimate. It sold to a private Suffolk buyer.
Also bringing strong demand was Hamlet in a Rolling Landscape, a 17 x 22¾in (43 x 58cm) oil on canvas. Here the estimate was £300-500 and it was taken up to £2800 before being knocked down to a private buyer in Essex bidding online.
With the vendor having owned these works for over two decades, these sums must have represented significant returns.
However, if the Benton End artists repeat the kind of performance in terms of price growth over the next two decades, maybe the seller will regret not keeping hold of them.