Among the recent sales showing how these features can generate interest, the latest Art & Design sale at Cheffins (24.5% buyer’s premium) in Cambridge offered a number of works from longstanding collections which were pitched at sensible levels and duly commanded significant bidding.
The top-priced picture at the sale on February 23 was by painter-plantsman Sir Cedric Morris (1889- 1982). It depicted Benton End, the 16th century farmhouse and garden in Suffolk that became the location of the art college that he set up with his life-partner Arthur Lett-Haines in 1937-38.
The college moved to the site near Hadleigh in 1939 following a fire at the school’s previous location in Dedham, Essex.
The 20¾ x 16¾in (53 x 43cm) oil on board showed the outbuildings of the property. His many paintings of the college’s garden often showed glimpses of the farmhouse but it was an unusual for Morris to make the buildings themselves the main focus of the work.
A larger view from 1947 showing the same spot but from a different angle can be found at Ipswich Art Gallery but, again, even then the flower-strewn path and foliage were more prominent.
Another feature making the current lot atypical was the presence of a floral still-life attributed to Lucy Harwood (1893-1972) on the back. She was one of the first artists to join the East Anglian School of Art and one of its longest-serving members. Fellow student Maggi Hambling remembered her as a Benton End institution and a fierce individualist.
The double-sided picture in Cambridge was therefore billed as ‘demonstrative of the bond Harwood shared with Morris’. As well as developing a close friendship they shared a number of personal and artistic similarities, not least a love of horticulture and a preference for colourful flower painting.
Over her years at the school, Harwood was given a number of paintings by Morris and Lett-Haines, the large majority of which were returned to the two artists following her death.
Having painted the flower picture on the back of this one, though, it remained with Harwood’s family and came to auction from one of her descendants – a provenance that boosted the lot in addition to its market freshness.
Harwood has been on the rise commercially herself of late and almost all of her highest recorded auction prices have come in the last two years, including Traction Engines Resting that made a record £7500 at Sworders in 2021.
However, Morris is still the bigger name with his auction record standing at a mighty £280,000. The Cheffins catalogue stated the way Morris painted the farm buildings at Benton End “demonstrated both the confident handling of paint and the compositional mastery that has secured Morris’ abiding popularity”.
Even still, the fact that it was not a flower picture meant as a commercial proposition it was unlikely to reach the upper echelons of the Morris market. But with the estimate set at £10,000-15,000, a level that was neither too punchy a level nor undercooked, it drew bidding from a number of Morris followers before it was knocked down at £44,000 to a London-based private buyer.
While the price stands outside the top 30 sums for Morris at auction, it was one of the highest for a non-flower picture according to Artprice. In fact only Drought, Oxfordshire, a painting of cottages in the parched countryside from 1933 that sold for £50,000 at Sworders in 2019, has fetched more.
West Dean scene
Another work by a horticultural artist bringing interest at the Cambridge sale was The Nursery at West Dean by Olwyn Bowey (b.1936). The artist has been on the rise commercially over the last five years and the market received a boost in 2019 from the dispersal of the Barbara Holliday collection at Sworders. It contained more than 20 works by Bowey including Myrtle’s Hanging Baskets that fetched £7400 – a record until the current sale.
The 2ft 6in x 3ft 1in (75 x 94cm) signed oil on board at Cheffins depicted the young trees and shrubs being cultivated in the garden at West Dean’s Victorian greenhouses in West Sussex.
Bowey made a number of paintings and prints of the location, mostly focusing on the plants being grown within the interior. The fact that this was an airy outside view seems to have given it extra appeal to bidders, adding to its painterly quality and good size.
Again the estimate here was not deemed excessive at £2000-3000 and, after a good competition, it eventually sold online at £9500 to a private collector. The price was a record for the artist at auction, indicating the commercial bar for Olwyn continuing to gently rise.
A group of colourful nature studies by Simon Bussy (1870- 1954) also caught the attention in Cambridge, all of them selling for a combined £42,300. They had been purchased directly from the artist by Pamela, Lady Glenconner (1871-1928) and were consigned by a descendant, again making them highly attractive in terms of market freshness.
The French artist came to London in 1901. Having married Dorothy Strachey in 1903, the sister of the writer Lytton Strachey, he became closely associated with the Bloomsbury Group. The couple would often host its leading members, including Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, at their homes in both London and Roquebrune in the south of France.
Bussy painted plenty of portraits and landscapes but his small-scale studies of animals, particularly those of birds, insects and reptiles shown in meticulously painted albeit simplified forms, are perhaps the best known part of his oeuvre today. Many of these works were made during his numerous hours of “patient observation” at London Zoo and they have accounted for most of his highest auction prices.
Cheffins reported roughly five bidders on each of the four lots. Among the three works going over estimate was the top-seller, a depiction of an Asian fairy-bluebird. The 10½ x 8¼in (27 x 21cm) oil on board from 1940 was a trademark composition and had appeal thanks to its strong colours, attractive background and the subject matter of a striking tropical bird.
The estimate of £7000-10,000 ensured it drew competition from a number of parties and it sold at £17,000 to the London trade.
Just behind in terms of price was Papillion Jaune, an 8¾ x 6in (22 x 16cm) oil on canvas of a yellow butterfly next to a yellow flower from 1941. Given what proved to be an evidently attainable estimate of £4000-6000, it sold online at £16,000 to a private collector in the US – showing the combination of freshness and pitch striking a chord with overseas buyers too.