When it comes to selling works on paper at auction, keeping a lid on estimates has become a prerequisite. This is certainly the case at the middle and lower end of the market, but also true for many major artists.
It was shown by a couple of works on paper by well-known names that brought significant bidding at a recent Dominic Winter (20% buyer’s premium) sale in South Cerney, in large part thanks to restrained estimates.
The July 21 Gloucestershire auction offered an architectural study by John Ruskin (1819-1900). The study of one of the Gothic tracery windows of Merton Tower in Oxford was an elegantly crafted, although somewhat unfinished, watercolour which probably dated from the mid-1870s. It retained a faint pencil inscription to lower right stating about 1874 - or/75 J. R.
This was a period when the artist and critic had a strong connection with the university. He had been appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1869, and then founded his own art school in the city, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, that opened in 1871.
At least one other study of Merton Tower is known: an earlier graphite drawing from 1838 executed when he was an undergraduate showing a larger view of the edifice and the nearby lodgings in Magpie Lane. It remains part of the Ruskin Foundation’s collection.
The work at Dominic Winter was executed in watercolour with pencil and bodycolour on a 11½ x 9in (29 x 23cm) sheet. It had provenance to the Odling family who lived at Paxford House, near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire.
It may have been originally acquired by Dr William Odling (1829-1921), a chemistry professor who was also a prolific collector of Old Master prints, or Thomas Case (1844-1925), another family member who was a tutor at Oxford and was involved in various architectural restoration projects.
The contents of Paxford House were sold after the death of Hilary Katharine Odling in 2019 and this picture appeared at an auction in Ross on Wye in September the following year. Spending just £470 at that sale, the buyer (assuming they were the vendor here) made a significant return.
When it comes to Ruskin’s architectural views, Venice subjects are the most valuable. The highest price recorded for such a work is a larger watercolour of St Mark’s Basilica that made a lofty $120,000 (£91,875) at Sotheby’s New York in January 2019. A more recent sale was Venice by Moonlight, a watercolour that made £10,000 at David Duggleby in November (see ATG No 2526).
However, an Oxford subject also has plenty of appeal both to the reliable and knowledgeable Ruskin followers that regularly turn out when good material becomes available and also buyers with a connection to the university, including alumni searching for pictures of their old college.
The study of Merton Tower was estimated at £1000-1500, a level that proved highly tempting to a number of parties. On the day, it drew a good contest and was knocked down at £7500 to a private buyer.
The price was a decent sum for a Ruskin sketch although it would clearly have fetched more had the lower right side of the work been more complete.
Similar levels of competition came for a small Augustus John (1878-1961) drawing of his wife Ida Nettleship.
The 4¼ x 4in (11 x 10cm) pencil sketch was not only completely fresh to the market but also had a good provenance: it had been consigned by the great-granddaughter of Geraldine Carr (1866-1954), a fellow artist and close friend of the couple.
Carr had studied at the Slade between 1892-94 where she had been a contemporary of Nettleship as well as Gwen John. She worked as an artist and designer after leaving the Slade and later became known for her prints and enamel works too.
Some high prices for Augustus John portraits on paper have been recorded in the last few years, including some six-figure sums for studies of his mistress Dorelia McNeill.
Plenty of drawings of Nettleship have also sold at auction before – Artprice records 33 sales in all – although they appear to be slightly less commercial and tend to fetch sums a bit further down the price scale.
The example in Gloucestershire was unsigned and had some adhesive tape residue to the upper margin but was in an otherwise decent state. Ultimately the value of this head study was limited by its small size but thanks to the attractive £1500-2000 estimate it drew plenty of interest, selling at £14,000 to the trade.