Market freshness and attractive provenance are as much a factor in the Modern British art market as in more traditional sectors.
One recent sale proving the point was the latest Cornish and Fine Art sale held at Penzance saleroom Lay’s (21% buyer’s premium). On October 26 a selection of desirable material on offer was boosted by both exceptional ownership histories and the fact they had never been offered at auction before.
The most prominent lot was a significant work by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942). The artist who developed his familiar primitive style by painting on scraps of cardboard, plywood and odd pieces of paper has been much copied and faked over the years, meaning a rock-solid provenance is all-important.
This was certainly the case here.
The picture depicted a trawler passing a lighthouse, a familiar Wallis subject, and had been painted in c.1935 on an irregularly shaped board. Measuring 14½ x 2ft 1in (37 x 54cm), it was comparatively large by the artist’s standards.
It came from the Dartington Hall Trust collection and had never appeared on the market since being purchased directly from Wallis himself in 1935.
The work was one of nine bought by American-born heiress, philanthropist and collector Dorothy Elmhirst from Wallis via her friend Jim Ede, the curator of the Tate Gallery who championed the artist’s work (he later founded Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge which houses a remarkable collection of Wallis pictures).
In correspondence between Elmhirst and Ede, the former wrote that the £3 price for all nine works “seems a most paltry sum. Don’t you think we ought to give Mr Wallace [sic] at least £5; or will this be spoiling your market?”
The current picture was kept at Dartington Hall, the medieval estate near Totnes, Devon, which Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst had purchased in 1925 and transformed into an education and arts centre.
Offered at Lay’s from the trust that now runs the estate, its freshness and provenance could hardly have been much better.
The picture also had plenty of features that the market favours in terms of the subject, style and composition. Furthermore, it was a picture that was well known to academics and collectors: it was exhibited at Tate St Ives in 1997 and featured in various books on the artist (including the 2001 book on the artist which was part of Matthew Gale’s St Ives Artists series).
Its condition also lifted it commercially - minimal cracking despite the fact that the board had been cut out by the artist and no sign of retouching.
At Lay’s it was pitched at £60,000-80,000 and, after bringing a decent competition, it sold on top estimate to the London trade.
That £80,000 price was significant: it was the joint-fourth-highest auction price for the artist overall, but the highest for a Wallis sold outside London.
A group of eight lots from the family collection of artist Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch (1869-1955) also boasted a highly attractive ownership history
All were works either by him or other members of the Newlyn artistic community which had been given directly to Birch. Prior to the Lay’s sale, none had been on the open market before.
Together they raised a combined £80,370 with all going to different buyers, mostly regular clients of Lay’s who have strong local connections to Lamorna, the Cornish town where the artist lived (he added ‘Lamorna’ to his own name to avoid confusion with the painter Lionel Birch).
One such buyer secured a portrait of Birch’s daughter Mornie by Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970).
Dating from 1908, the 3ft 2ft 4in (91 x 70cm) signed oil on canvas was one of a trio of works each created together by Knight, her husband Harold Knight and Birch all on the same sunny day in the woods around Lamorna. Laura and Harold both painted Birch’s daughter while Birch depicted a broader woodland scene showing the two other artists painting Mornie (his wife ‘Mouse’ was also included in the scene).
Harold’s smaller portrait of Mornie sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for £35,000 while Birch’s painting was recently acquired by Penlee House in Penzance for its permanent collection. Indeed, this larger portrait by Laura spent this summer on loan at Penlee House as part of its Lamorna Colony Pioneers exhibition.
Estimated at £50,000-80,000, it sold on the low estimate - a credible sum although one which perhaps reflected the fact that it was unlikely to reach the same heights as her brighter and more striking figurative works.
A smaller portrait of Lamorna Birch at his easel by Harold Knight (1874-1961) was also part of the collection and benefited from the same provenance. The 13¾ x 11¾in (35 x 30cm) signed oil on canvas was given to Birch by the artist himself and remained with his family when he died.
Housed in an 18th-century carved gilt frame and kept behind glass, it was described in the catalogue as in “delightful unrestored clean and original condition”. Estimated at £5000-10,000, the work sold at £8000 to a local private buyer.
While Lay’s sold another Harold Knight portrait of the artist Robert Morson Hughes holding a pint of beer for £46,000 in August 2022 (see ATG No 2554), a price that remains the highest for the artist at an auction outside London, the sum for the current work ranks among the top 10 at a UK regional sale.
Bringing a stronger competition at the current auction was a striking view of the Eiger Mountains in Switzerland by Birch himself. The 2ft 5in x 3ft 4in (73cm x 1.01m) signed oil on canvas had hung at the artist’s home, Flagstaff Cottage in Lamorna, ever since it was painted.
In good condition despite some woodworm holes in the stretcher, the good size and subject together with the prime provenance and market freshness lifted it beyond the many more regular works by the artist that emerge at auction.
Estimated at £4000-6000, it was knocked down at £17,500 to a private buyer bidding online.
This was the highest price for the artist at auction anywhere in the last 18 months according to Artprice.