The Lilac Sunbonnet by Bessie MacNicol, £44,000 at Lyon & Turnbull.

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While they rarely come to the market, partly because much of her oeuvre was destroyed after her death, two works emerged for sale at the end of last year, both selling well above their respective guides and making sums within the top five auction prices for the artist.

Having studied at the liberal Académie Colarossi where women were permitted to attend alongside men, MacNicol was one of the first wave of female artists from Britain to study in France.

After moving into a large studio on St Vincent Street in Glasgow in 1899, she produced a series of subtly painted portraits – partly inspired by those of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) – which drew favourable comparisons with those of her male contemporaries.

At her funeral, the all-male Glasgow Art Club members’ tribute praised her as “a true artist”, while, in 1908, the director of the National Galleries of Scotland James Caw called MacNicol “probably the most accomplished lady-artist that Scotland has yet produced”.

Offered at Lyon & Turnbull’s Scottish art sale in Edinburgh on December 7 was The Lilac Sunbonnet, an oil on canvas of a fresh-faced girl dressed in light flowing fabrics from 1899.

Measuring 16in x 12in (41 x 31cm), it was billed as “a superlative figurative work by the artist” and duly attracted considerable interest against its £15,000- 20,000 estimate. It was eventually knocked down at £44,000.


Phyllis with a Bouquet of Flowers by Bessie MacNicol, £14,000 at Olympia Auctions.

Meanwhile at Olympia Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) in London on December 13, a bidding battle broke out for a portrait titled Phyllis with a Bouquet of Flowers. A smaller oil on panel measuring 9 x 7in (23 x 17cm), it came from a private vendor who had bought it from the Richard Green Gallery in 1999. Here the estimate was £5000-7000 and it sold at £14,000 to the British trade.

The fact that this was the highest price for a work in this smaller format, as well as the fifth highest for the artist overall, provided further evidence that MacNicol may be benefitting from the greater interest and rising prices for female artists commercially over recent years.