In the picture market it is often the case that works with a close personal connection to an artist are lifted commercially above more run-of-the-mill offerings.
Buyers like the idea of purchasing something intimately related or cherished by the painter themselves.
This was witnessed at a recent auction in Cambridge where a group of works by a well-known artistic couple emerged.
The consignment of works by Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952) and his wife Lady Rhoda Birley (1899-1981) comprised 23 paintings kept at their beloved home, Charleston Manor House, a Grade II-listed property near Seaford in East Sussex.
Offered on September 20, the collection raised £117,000 against a combined upper estimate of £54,860.
“Interest in the Birley lots was wide-ranging,” said Cheffins director Brett Tryner. “We had bidding from both the UK and abroad with a mix of private collectors and those who had a close affinity to the family participating.”
The pictures remained at Charleston Manor House until Lady Birley sold the property in 1980, the year before she died. The contents were sold during a three-day on-the-premises auction staged by Christie’s where this group of pictures was acquired by Cheffins’ vendor - who also happened to be the buyer of the house itself.
The vendor restored the house before selling it in the mid-1980s, taking the current pictures with them.
Leading portrait painter
Eight of the works at Cheffins were by Sir Oswald, all of which sold for a combined £73,900, with four separate buyers making a purchase.
Birley was one of Britain’s leading portrait painters of his day, receiving commissions from the royal family, members of the aristocracy, politicians and painting performers at Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
However, most of the works here depicted either scenes from Charleston Manor House or views painted on trips to France. They were part of what the artist termed his ‘off-duty’ works: interior scenes, landscapes, still-lifes and architectural studies which were painted principally for pleasure.
A view looking into the dining room at Charleston Manor posted the top lot of the collection. It showed the paintings, ornaments and fine furniture which the couple acquired to furnish their home, giving an impression of a refined and cultured aesthetic.
The 2ft 5in x 2ft (74 x 62cm) oil on canvas was naturally very different in terms of its appeal to the formal portraits Birley painted throughout his career and which tend to be his more commercial works.
Famously, a portrait of his friend Sir Winston Churchill made an extraordinary £1.2m at Sotheby’s in 2014, a sum that remains an auction record for the artist many times over.
However, providing an intriguing glimpse of family life, as well as being a well-conceived and expertly handled composition, the work turned out to be of considerable interest to collectors.
Estimated at £2000-4000, it drew fervent bidding before it was knocked down at £26,000 to a UK private buyer bidding online.
The price was significant in the terms of the Birley market - it was the fourth highest at auction for a work by the artist according to Artprice.com and more than double that made by any non-portrait before.
Two views of the grounds at Charleston Manor also attracted interest. A painting showing the pond and surrounding vegetation from 1943 surpassed a £3000-5000 estimate and sold at £6500, while an earlier view of the lake from 1936 with wild flowers to the foreground and a canopy of trees in the background made £6000 against the same estimate, selling to a different UK private buyer.
The sole portrait by Sir Oswald among the group was a painting of Lady Birley from 1939.
A large and somewhat theatrical study showing the sitter dressed in a hat, brooch and cloak, it had labels on the back indicating that the artist had displayed it in the year it was painted at the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.
It was thought to have then been shown at two of the society’s subsequent shows at the Royal Academy in 1942 and the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield in 1953.
The 3ft 9in x 2ft 5in (1.14m x 74cm) signed oil on canvas was estimated at £10,000-20,000 and was pursued to £22,000, selling to the same buyer who purchased the painting of the couple’s dining room.
Our friends the Churchills
Although further down the price scale, the 15 pictures by Lady Birley also met with a good response in Cambridge with all of them selling to 11 separate parties.
All bar two went for under £1000, but one lot in particular stood out due to its subject matter.
The painting of the couple’s friends Sir Winston and Lady Churchill in the Loggia at the Villa Capponcina in Cap d’Ail had an appeal all of its own.
Both the Churchills and the Birleys liked to stay in the south of France near Monte Carlo and the Villa Capponcina, which was owned by Churchill’s long-time political friend, the newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook, was a favourite spot. Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames described the villa as ‘an oasis of privacy’ for the wartime prime minister.
The 2ft 1in x 2ft 6in (63 x 75cm) signed oil on canvas was dated 1958 and was painted at the time of Sir Winston’s and Lady Churchill’s golden wedding anniversary which they celebrated with friends at the villa.
Showing again the appeal of a picture with close personal connections between artist and sitter, not to mention the huge boost thanks to ‘the Churchill factor’, it flew over a £1000-2000 estimate and sold at £10,000 to a UK private bidder - a different buyer to the purchasers of the Sir Oswald pictures.
Although works by Lady Birley have not often appeared at auction, this was highest price so far by almost five times over.
The Birleys and Charleston Manor House
In 1921, the portraitist Sir Oswald Birley married Rhoda Lecky Pike (1900-81), an Anglo-Irish model and artist herself, who was 20 years his junior.
Initially settling in London with their two children (Mark Birley, who later set up Annabel’s Club and Harry’s Bar in London, and Maxime de la Falaise who became a model and socialite), they purchased Charleston Manor House in East Sussex in 1931.
The property, parts of which dated from the 12th century, had been empty for some time and was located around five miles from the similarly named Charleston, the home of the Bloomsbury School artists with whom the couple became associated as fringe members of the group.
At Charleston Manor House the Birleys established a well-known music festival and Lady Birley created a famous garden along with the help of her friend, Vita Sackville-West. Although Lady Birley sold the property in 1980, Charleston Manor House was later bought in 2011 by India Jane Birley, granddaughter of Sir Oswald and Lady Birley.