The artist Elisabeth Vellacott (1905-2002) was a late bloomer – holding her first solo show aged 60 and painting her last work aged 92.
Born in Essex, she spent her early years designing fabrics, costumes and theatre sets, but turned to painting after her Cambridge studio was hit by a bomb in 1942, destroying all her design work.
Vellacott’s painting subjects are largely split between two bodies of work: meticulous landscape studies in pencil of rock formations, trees and water, and thinly painted figurative scenes inspired by Italian frescoes.
The Guardian’s obituary in 2002 described the latter group as having “a timeless and magical air… as if figures from early Italian frescoes had changed their clothes and wandered into Cambridgeshire”.
In the last decade, it is these figurative pictures that have nearly tripled in value on the secondary market.
A typical example, Women hanging out washing, appeared in The Art & Design Sale at Cheffins of Cambridge (24.5% buyer’s premium) on May 25.
The 2ft 5in x 2ft 11in (73 x 88cm) oil on board, showing three women, was knocked down for £9000 to a local Cambridgeshire buyer against a £3000-5000 estimate.
The result is an auction record for the artist according to artprice.com, eclipsing the previous £8000 high paid for The Dwarf (1953) at Sotheby’s in 2017.
“Vellacott, along with a number of other Post-war British women artists such as Elisabeth Frink and Mary Fedden, is seeing a resurgence in popularity,” said Brett Tryner, director at Cheffins.
“Vellacott was a founder member of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors in the 1950s and exhibited both in London and retrospectively at Kettle’s Yard.”
The painting was consigned as part of an 11-lot group of mostly works on paper from the Modern British collection of Michael Black (1928-2022).
An author and literary critic who held the position of university publisher at Cambridge University Press, Black formed a modest collection of paintings, drawings and prints in response to seeing the annual exhibitions of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors in the early 1980s.
He purchased Women hanging out washing in 1987 at The New Art Centre in London.
Youngman and schools
The collection also included the 1951 watercolour Le Puy by Kent-born painter Nan Youngman (1906-95), another Cambridge Society founder. Youngman was a driving force behind the Pictures for Schools initiative that formed part of the social reforms sweeping across Britain after the Second World War.
Working in the tradition of English Surrealists such as Paul Nash (1889-1946), she made at least one trip to France in the aftermath of the war painting landscapes such as Le Puy. It was knocked down for £750 against a £300-500 estimate.
The price is among the higher prices for Youngman’s work at auction, with Cheffins also holding the artist’s record: £3200 for Morning in Dieppe (1947), another Post-war French oil.
Offered alongside the Black group were two dozen lots from the 20th century art collection of renowned Hungarian British conductor Lord Solti (1912-97), led by an £18,000 eagle maquette by Elisabeth Frink (1930-33) from 1984.
Several contemporary art paintings drew spirited bidding, including an acrylic and cloth collage by Luca Pignatelli (b.1962) titled L’eroë Piangente, which sold for £6500, more than double its guide.
The Italian artist is known for his hyper-realistic paintings and drawings that explore the relationship between architecture and nature, the best of which range from £20,000-30,000 at auction.
Another eagerly contested lot owned by the Soltis was Wounded Eros, a 14 x 10½in (36 x 27cm) lithograph by Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec (1864-1901). It had been owned by Ludwig Charell (1891- 1956), a German American art expert who owned a large collection of work by the post-Impressionist and exhibited at The Arts Council of Great Britain in 1961. It was knocked down at £800, comfortably over its modest £100-200 guide.
“The Hungarian-British conductor was a major collector of 20th century art and design and had an incredible eye for quality,” said Martin Millard, director at Cheffins, adding the auction house will include more pieces from the collection in its Fine Sale in June.
Elsewhere, a four-lot group of woodcuts depicting alpine scenes by Herbert Gurschner (1901-75) contributed around £2400 to the hammer total.
Though best known for his boldly coloured society portraits – Lawrence of Arabia and King Gustav of Sweden among them – the Austrian painter also created numerous woodcuts and linocuts of his native Tyrol, a historical region in the Alps of northern Italy and western Austria. Around 150 or so have sold at auction since the early 1990s with the highest sums paid for the best preserved.
The top-selling work at Cheffins was the snowy scene Winter in Tyrol, a 4 x 5in (12 x 13.5cm) woodcut dated 1924 that was knocked down at £900, a mid-range price for a Gurschner print.
Further highlights in the print category included a 1942 etching of Ophelia, Gerald Brockhurst’s (1890-1978) portrait of his lover Kathleen Woodward as the tragic heroine in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, knocked down at £2400 against a £800-1200 guide, and an early digital print Arnolfini that sold for £2200 against a £150-250 estimate.
The latter was created in 1983 by the pioneering digital artist Harold Cohen (1928-2016) and forms part of a series of plotter drawings exhibited at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery in 1983.
The sum, an auction record for a digital work by Cohen according to artprice.com, reflects the growing interest on the market for digital art.