Three works by Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929) from three separate sources were among the notable performers at Lay’s (21% buyer’s premium) latest fine art sale in Penzance. Each sold to a different buyer.
Two were portraits from different ends of the artist’s career. Although painted in contrasting styles, they both depicted personal connections of the artist.
The later and more commercial of the two was Young Man Reading, a signed watercolour from 1920 which came to the Cornwall auction from a private Penwith source.
According to a handwritten label on the back, it had previously appeared at Lay’s back in 1985 (when the firm was known as David Lay). Records also show that it was offered again at fellow Penzance saleroom WH Lane in 2017 where, estimated at £10,000-12,000, it sold at £9000.
At the Lay’s sale on August 24, however, it performed markedly better and, assuming the buyer back in 2017 was the vendor here, it registered a significant return.
The subject of the work was John Alfred Hone, one of four young friends who rented Tuke’s parents’ old family home of Lyndon Lodge in Hanwell, Middlesex.
Known as Jack, Hone had served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War and, following the end of the conflict, studied to become a land agent. He later joined the stockbrokers Scott Brothers and would become Tuke’s financial adviser and eventually his executor on his death.
The work in Cornwall was executed shortly after Hone was demobilised and the year before Lyndon Lodge was sold. At the time Hone, who had become a friend of the artist, had been a regular visitor to Falmouth and appeared as a model in a number of Tuke’s major works including June Morning which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year. Tuke also painted a portrait of Hone in flying uniform at around this time.
The 9½ x 6¾in (24 x 17cm) watercolour was inscribed To J. A. H. to the lower left and, according to the Lay’s catalogue, it was originally given to the sitter by Tuke. The catalogue also stated that it may have been one of the ‘several small studies and sketches’ mentioned in Tuke’s register for 1920 (the artist kept a careful record of his work which is now held in the Tate collection).
In terms of condition, it had no signs of restoration, damage or foxing although a slight degree of mount burn was evident. While the fact that it was a small watercolour of a clothed figure meant it was unlikely to reach the heights of the Tuke market (the highest sums usually come for his nudes and semi-nudes showing young men on Cornwall beaches), the picture was deemed a sensitive study showing the artist’s skillful technique.
Estimated at £7000-9000, it sold at £22,500. The sum stands in the top 10 prices for Tuke watercolours at auction according to Artprice.com and was a house record for a work by the artist at Lay’s. It also represented a notable improvement on the 2017 sale price.
A contrasting Tuke portrait from 37 years earlier also drew attention at the current sale. The 12 x 8in (30.5 x 20.5cm) oil on panel was very different both in terms of subject and approach showing the bearded Newlyn fisherman and sail maker Philip Harvey set against a plain dark background and looking directly towards the viewer.
It dated from 1883, the year that Tuke arrived in Newlyn and rented a space in Harvey’s loft in Trewarveneth Street (where the latter stored his sails). Tuke used it as a small studio and gave this small portrait to the sitter in 1884.
The portrait is listed in the Tuke register and it came to Lay’s directly from the estate of one of Harvey’s descendants. Again, the condition was good with no signs of splitting to the panel or restoration under UV light.
Against a somewhat conservative pitch of £1500-2500, it drew a good contest and was knocked down at £10,000 – a decent sum considering the commercial factors at play together with its small size.
From a separate private source came one of Tuke’s marine pictures which, while they certainly have admirers, tend to generate less demand than his figurative works.
Shipping off Falmouth was a 11¾ x 21¾in (30 x 55cm) oil on canvas which was signed and dated 1894. It was described as in ‘gallery-ready condition’ being in a clean state and having been relined (no signs of repair or retouching were visible under UV light).
Estimated at £5000-8000, it sold at £8800, a credible sum for a straightforward shipping scene.
‘Lord Tennyson’s niece’
Elsewhere at the sale, a Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) portrait got away towards the lower end of a £20,000-30,000 estimate.
The 2ft x 20in (61 x 51cm) signed oil on canvas was undated but was thought to date from c.1910 based on the sitter’s distinctive hairstyle and attire. The vendor had spent considerable time researching the identity of the sitter and it was thought the most likely candidate was the writer Fryn Tennyson Jesse.
The niece of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, she arrived in Cornwall in 1907 and attended the Forbe’s School of Painting in Newlyn. Despite its possibility as ‘a rare and exciting discovery’, it failed to encroach very far into the £20,000-30,000 estimate, selling at £20,500.
The price, while not in the upper echelons for figurative works by the artist which can make many times this level, was, however, in line with a number of previous results for conventional portraits by Knight.
For more on a recent example of work by Tuke at auction see our Special Report in this edition of ATG on works sold in the US.