Although he was associated with some major names in 20th century British art, such as Francis Bacon (with whom he is thought to have collaborated on a number of canvases in the 1950s despite their somewhat stormy relationship), as well as John Minton and John Craxton, he stands some way behind his better known contemporaries both curatorially and commercially.
However, the first major retrospective of Wirth-Miller’s work will open at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester this autumn with 70 of the 100 works on display sourced from private collections and having never been exhibited before.
Rare auction appearances
Not many works have ever come to auction (seemingly only around 50), with the highest sum fetched so far being the £10,500 for a portrait of Bacon that emerged at Colchester saleroom Reeman Dansie in 2016 (source: Artprice).
The works offered in Edinburgh on August 10 displayed the textual quality of his work and were of a good size, both similarly scaled oils on canvas measuring approximately 2ft 6in x 3ft (76 x 91cm), and they also had a good late 1960s date.
First up at the auction was Essex Landscape, Winter which was signed and dated 1968. Estimated at £800-1200, it drew a strong contest and was knocked down at £6500.
The following lot, Untitled (Winter Landscape) met an equally good reaction against the same estimate and sold at £7000.
The two sums represented the third and fourth highest prices for the artist at auction so far.
Watt clothing works
Also bring strong competition was an example of one of Alison Watt’s (b.1965) series of cloth paintings.
The diptych titled Clarion comprised two 2ft (61cm) square oils on canvas depicting the folds of cloth and focusing on the play of light and shadow.
These works were apparently derived from her study of fabrics in Old Master paintings and, while commercially they tend to be less valuable than her figurative scenes, they remain an important part of her oeuvre.
Estimated at £8000-12,000, Clarion was bid up to £19,000 – among the five highest prices for one of the artist’s cloth subjects.
One of the wackier works at the sale was The Death of Marat and the Birth of the Lobster, a large painting by Scottish pop artist Philip Colbert (b.1979).
Crustaceans feature prominently in the artist’s work (Colbert once said: “I became an artist when I became a lobster”) and this picture is a pastiche of Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting The Death of Marat which shows the French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat lying in the bath following his murder.
In this version the pyjama-ed lobster is checking his smartphone.
The painting was the centrepiece of a Colbert exhibition in 2021 which marked the re-opening of the Wardlaw Museum at the University of St Andrews after its redevelopment.
Indeed, Colbert had graduated from St Andrews in philosophy, while Marat himself received a medical degree from the same institution in 1775.
While most works by the artist sell on the primary market, since 2021 the artist had broken through the £10,000 barrier at auction and now can easily surpass this level.
The 5ft 11in x 7ft 10in (1.8 x 2.41m) signed oil on canvas was being sold with all proceeds going to support a scholarship programme at the University of St Andrews. Estimated at £20,000-30,000, it took £22,000.