Works by the Staithes Group of artists, the band of late 19th and early 20th century painters who, inspired by the French Impressionists, created an art colony at the North Yorkshire fishing village, have looked a bit commercially forlorn for a while now.
But supporters of this sector, particularly those in the local area, can point to a few recent bright spots. While there is some indication that buyers are now seeing this area as good value, odd sparks of strong competition have been generated for certain high-quality works, suggesting a revival of interest at the top end at least.
Leaving aside the price rises for Laura and Harold Knight (arguably the two leading Staithes names but also associated with other groups such as the Newlyn school), record prices have come for a number of artists over the last few years. These include Mark Senior (1862-1927) – £42,000 for The Tennis Player at Christie’s in July 2021 – and Rowland Henry Hill (1873-1952) – £10,000 for The Primrose Gatherers at David Duggleby (21% buyer’s premium) in November 2022.
David Duggleby set another record for a Staithes Group artist at its Spring Art Sale in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, on March 17.
Pulling up the Cobles, Runswick, Yorkshire by Lionel Townsend Crawshaw (1864-1949) was a classic example of a Staithes picture, ticking all the boxes in terms of subject matter (sea, shore, harbour, fisherfolk, fish lying on the bay and a location just five miles down the coast from the village itself).
Imbued with mellow light, it typified the way the Staithes artists mixed plein air Impressionist techniques with a salty northern realism. It also demonstrated the Doncaster-born artist’s painterly approach in terms of composition with the figures straining as they pull up the flat-bottomed boat.
Consigned to Duggleby from Australia, it had sold less than five months ago at Gibson’s in Armadale, Victoria, for Aus$1100 (£610). It is not known how it ended up in Australia but many Staithes works were shipped abroad in the 1950s-60s after they fell out of fashion in the British market but remained popular elsewhere, including in Scandinavia and other places further afield.
Incidentally, it was not until the 1970s that art historians such as Dr Peter Phillips (1934-2012) helped bring this sector back to light, aided by scholarly dealers like Christopher Wood, Godfrey Pilkington and Jeremy Maas who did much to raise the profile of Victorian art.
In terms of the current work, the Scarborough saleroom identified the 17in x 2ft 3in (43 x 67.5cm) signed oil on canvas laid on board as a study for a larger oil painting in the Pannett Gallery in Whitby. Interestingly, the Pannett picture omitted Lady Palmer’s Cottage from the background – the white house at the tip of Runswick bay which appears in many pictures by Staithes artists.
Another factor in its favour was its attractive condition. It only had some light craquelure and, crucially, no signs of overpaint under UV light. Even though it had sold elsewhere recently, it was a strong commercial prospect and duly drew solid interest against a £6000-8000 estimate from a number of interest parties.
The majority of the bidding on the day came from two local private buyers, one in the room and one on the phone, with the latter – a private collector who focuses on Staithes Group works principally – placing the winning bid of £17,500. The price almost doubled the previous auction high for Crawshaw which had stood since 2013 when Christie’s sold the beach scene Summer Holidays for £9800.
Furthermore, aside from a couple of works, including the above mentioned picture by Senior that sold at Christie’s, the sum was the highest price for a work by a member of the Staithes Group since 2014.
Another northern seascape at the Duggleby sale was Collecting Mussels on the Northumberland Coast by John Falconar Slater (1857-1937).
The profilic Tyneside artist was often seen oilskin-clad and with his easel, painting the coastline whatever the weather. A newspaper article about him from 1898 was headlined ‘The Weatherproof Artist’ – a nickname that stuck.
The artist, who was born into a family of Newcastle millers, produced a range of work including moorland, valley, cottage and farmyard scenes, but his Royal Academy exhibits from 1889-1936 tended to be views of waterfronts, especially the North Sea and Northumbrian Coast as well as the River Tyne.
The first biography of the painter, written by Northumberland art historian Marshall Hall, was published last year.
But while his work can be found in public collections such as the National Maritime Museum and the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, his prices at auction have arguably been kept down by the abundance of supply. Of the more than 1000 results recorded on Artprice, the highest was for a view of Putney Heath that made £4200 at Christie’s back in 2002.
Here the 19¾in x 2ft 6in (50 x 75cm) signed oil on canvas came to auction from a local collection of mainly north-eastern and Scottish paintings. Estimated at £1800-2500, it sold for £2000 to a private buyer from the Greater London area who was bidding on thesaleroom.com. It was the highest auction price for the artist for almost five years.
Bought for £2
Another work performing well at the Scarborough sale was a view of Richmond Castle by Harold Sutton Palmer (1854-1933). While, in this case, the artist was not northern (Palmer was born in Plymouth and attended the South Kensington Schools), he travelled widely around the UK painting landscapes and river scenes.
The 6¾x 10½in (17 x 27cm) watercolour was signed and had the title to the mount. It also had a label for London dealers Thomas Agnew & Sons on the back. Even still, remarkably the vendor had been able to acquire it for only £2 from charity shop in Driffield, East Yorkshire.
Apart from some foxing to the top left, it was in decent condition with its original strong colours retained.
With the estimate set at £120-180, it was always likely to generate plenty of interest and it came down to a battle between two online bidders, a member of the Dorset trade and a US private buyer, with the latter winning the lot at £1300.
The sum was a high price for a work of this size, indeed probably the most for a small-format watercolour by the artist for about 20 years.
Another major return on a vendor’s purchase came for an Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) ornithological watercolour.
Remarably, this depiction of male and female Grey Headed Yellow Wagtails had been bought for just £1 in an antiques shop where it had been mistakenly thought by the seller to be a print.
Measuring 7¾ x 9½in (17 x 24cm), the signed watercolour and bodycolour was identified as an original illustration for Lord Lilford’s Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands published in 1885.
In fine condition and with original colours, it drew a good contest against a £2000-3000 pitch and was knocked down at £6600 to a local private buyer in the room who beat online competition from the trade.
The price was seemingly the highest at auction for a one of Thorburn’s ‘Lord Lilford series’.
Laura Knight sketch
Among the works on paper bringing competition at David Duggleby’s Spring Art Sale was a red chalk and charcoal sketch attributed to Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970).
The unsigned 14¼ x 10½in (36 x 27cm) portrait had been bought by the eagle-eyed vendor from Warrington & Northwich Auctions in June last year, where it was catalogued as an ‘early 20th century unattributed pastel on paper’ and knocked down at £480.
The vendor suggested it was by Knight when they consigned it to Duggleby and the auction house confirmed the attribution and identified the sitter as the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova.
Knight met Lopokova in c.1919 when Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes came to London and she was allowed to work backstage making sketches in the dressing rooms and wings of the theatre. Knight drew her portrait on several occasions after being invited into Lopokova’s dressing room to study her at closer quarters.
Copies of the Knight etching Madonna, which is based on a head study of the dancer from c.1923, appear occasionally at auction; one making £2300 at Toovey’s in July 2020.
The sketch here, estimated at £1000-1500 at the auction on March 17, drew keen interest and sold to a London dealer at £4500.