Portrait of a Lady in front of a piano by Ethel Walker, £10,000 at Roseberys.

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In total, four works by the Scottish artist were available in the in south London saleroom on September 12 but two stood out in terms of the combined appeal of style and subject matter.

First came a painting of a lady standing in front of a piano, a 13 x 9¾in (33 x 25cm) oil on panel which had another picture of donkeys at Robin Hood’s Bay on the back.

The portrait, however, was the main attraction - it was described in the catalogue as ‘a classic example of Walker’s style with its subtle gradations of chalky paint and quiet, almost breathless atmosphere’.

Along with her large decorative compositions and bountiful still-lifes, her loosely painted female subjects executed with thick impasto are the most admired part of her oeuvre. They are also becoming more commercial judging by a few recent auction results.

Notable achiever

Edinburgh-born Walker holds a notable position in the history of Modern British female artists. She was the first woman to become a member of the New English Art Club and her supporters still regard her as one of the most creative female artists of her day.

Her works range from portraits and still-lifes to interior scenes and seascapes and show a transition from her early Impressionistic pictures to post- Impressionism and then towards Symbolist art from c.1914. It has also been suggested that she was among the earliest artists to explore lesbian sexuality openly in her painting.

Back in May 1952 the Tate gallery held a memorial exhibition for three women painters, Ethel Walker, Frances Hodgkins and Gwen John, which did much to raise the profile of these artists.

More recently, her work was included in the Tate Britain show Queer British Art 1861-1967 in 2017, while she will also be the subject of a Spotlight exhibition at the same venue later this year.

Commercially, though, Walker has never reached the heights of artists such as John and Hodgkins. Her auction record stands at £13,500 for a still-life titled Summer Flowers that made £13,500 at Christie’s in 2004.

Providing a boost to the market, a half-length portrait of a lady overshot a £800-1200 estimate and sold at £10,800 at Sworders’ sale of the collection of dealer Sally Hunter in July 2021.

The performance of the portrait at the latest Roseberys auction will no doubt give further encouragement.

Estimated at £4000-6000, it sold at £10,000 to a UK private buyer. The sum was the fourth highest at auction for Walker and showed a notable return on its last auction appearance when it fetched £1100 at Christie’s in 2005.

Typically colourful


Carnations by Ethel Walker, £8000 at Roseberys.

The following lot, a typically colourful flower picture which benefited from elegant handling and an attractive size, also brought decent competition.

Titled Carnations, the 2ft x 20¼in (62 x 52cm) signed oil on canvas was similar to another Walker still-life held in the Tate collection and was originally exhibited at London dealer Alex Reid & Lefevre where Walker showed a number of times from 1931 onwards (it retained part of the label to the back of the frame).

Estimated at £3000-5000, it sold at £8000 to a UK private buyer, the highest price for a still-life by the artist aside from the record picture at Christie’s.

The other two pictures by Walker at Roseberys fell somewhat further down the price scale. Another small oil on board showing donkeys on the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay (the location in North Yorkshire where the artist owned a cottage overlooking the sea) sold for £3200 against a £3000-5000 estimate, while a pencil sketch of a female nude surpassed a £150-250 pitch and took £380.

Mellis relief


Small White Relief by Margaret Mellis, £11,000 at Roseberys.

Among other works by female artists bringing interest at Roseberys was an abstract relief painting by Margaret Mellis (1914-2009).

The catalogue described her as ‘a pioneer of abstraction from the 1940s in Britain, creating a highly innovative body of work that pushed the boundaries between painting and sculpture, always utilising a unique approach to colour’.

The 15in (38cm) square painted wood composition titled Small White Relief was signed and dated 1970. While works only occasionally come to the secondary market, the Scottish artist has contributed works to a number of museum shows across the UK in the last few years including at Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery in 2022.

Here the market reacted well against the £3500- 4000 estimate and it was knocked down at £11,000, the highest price at auction so far for one of the artist’s plain white reliefs.

Blow in St Ives


Blue and White Stripes by Sandra Blow, £7500 at Roseberys.

A work by another well-established abstract artist that made a useful contribution to the bottom line in south London was a large 1998 painting by Sandra Blow (1925-2006).

Blue and White Stripes, a signed acrylic on canvas measuring 4ft (1.22m) square, exemplified the kind of work she produced following her move to St Ives in 1994.

While it had been unsold at Bonhams against a £4000-6000 estimate back in 2011, here it was pitched at £7000-9000 and sold at £7500 to a UK private buyer.