Dramatically exceeding its £150-250 estimate, it was knocked down at £20,000 at Parker Fine Art Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on May 11.
The artist was Violet Evelyn Arnott (1901-53) about whose works almost nothing is known.
Born in Brampton, Northumberland, she came from a wealthy family and is known to have studied at the Slade and then the Royal Academy schools from 1925. While this picture clearly showed some talent, none of her works have seemingly ever emerged on the market.
Intriguingly, the 2ft x 20in (61 x 51cm) unframed oil on canvas at the Farnham saleroom in Surrey, which was catalogued as ‘bust portrait of a man’, carried a large inscription on the back Arnott Annual Exam.
Archivist at the Royal Academy Mark Pomeroy told ATG that Arnott passed her 1925 exam and this work was one of two that helped her to win the second prize in the Premium competition (which were awarded each December).
“Her attendance record, however, was woeful”, Pomeroy added. “She stopped attending classes in the autumn of 1925 and her studentship was closed two years early in 1927 due to her non-attendance and failure to submit. It appears she never exhibited in the Summer Exhibition and so, from an Academy perspective at least, she vanishes from view.”
In 1928 she married Geoffrey Robert Sutton in her native Northumberland. Sutton was from a family of wealthy ship owners. His father’s estate was worth the equivalent of £17m today when he died. With no works known under her married name either, did she give up painting entirely at this time?
‘Quirky and characterful’
ATG contacted a number a dealers who specialise in this market and it seems the price has been received almost universally as something of a surprise. One dealer described it as a ‘quirky and characterful’ portrait possibly depicting another student at the RA.
Another member of the trade suggested the ‘gender fluid’ sitter may be the reason for the competition and, indeed, wondered if the subject might even be a woman.
However, as one dealer concluded: “Art shouldn’t need to have a back story or an extensive exhibition history. This is why artists get overlooked. Let’s let the artist be appreciated without question or justification.”