Girl in a Black Dress by Dod Procter

Girl in a Black Dress by Dod Procter, £88,000 at Bellmans.

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Dated to c.1915, Girl in a Black Dress came to the auction on May 15 from a long-standing client of the Billingshurst saleroom whose grandparents had a holiday home in Cornwall and are thought to have acquired it there. The picture had been in the family for many decades and therefore, in addition to its many qualities, it had the attraction of being totally fresh to the market.

On the back of the canvas was another oil painting of a water fountain but the main attraction was clearly the striking depiction of the unidentified sitter with piercing blue eyes.

Any work by Procter from before 1920 is rare, and this appears to be the earliest figurative work by the artist to have appeared on the market in recent decades. Only three other figurative works from before 1920 are known in public collections.

The current picture also foreshadowed her more mature figurative work from the 1920s onwards, especially with the close-up figure seeming to gaze into the void and various props strategically placed to create an accompanying narrative (in this case the sitter’s bright lacquer-red cap and the flower motifs to the background).

The 2ft 6in x 2ft (77 x 62cm) oil and tempera on canvas was signed to the top left and inscribed with the title to back of stretcher. Overall the condition was good despite some minor surface abrasion, while the retouching to the sitter's face visible under UV light was thought to be in the artist's hand herself.

Prior to the sale, the grandson and manager of Dod Procter’s estate confirmed the authenticity of the work.

The presence of tempera in the work, most notably in the bodice, was significant and gave evidence of its early date. Throughout the 1910s the artist experimented with the medium which was experiencing a revival at the time (promoted by the likes of Roger Fry and Marianne Stokes).

Girl in a Black Dress by Dod Procter

A detail of the painting by Dod Procter that made £88,000 at Bellmans.

The picture seemed to give a nod to Renaissance portraiture with the sitter portrayed motionless with crossed arms and at a slight angle to the viewer. Her simple smock and headdress also evoked earlier Old Masters.

Bellmans gave it an estimate of £15,000-25,000 but, once the catalogue went live, it attracted considerable attention online (the lot had over 90 ‘watchers’ on as well as at the viewing itself and it always looked likely to exceed this level.

On the day, at least four bidders were prepared to go beyond the high estimate. After it rose to £65,000 it came down to a battle between an online bidder and another party on the phone who eventually won the lot at £88,000.

In terms of auction prices for Procter, the sum stands only behind a 1920s portrait titled Girl with a Parrot that sold for £115,000 at Christie’s in 2015.

Bellmans reported bidding from both the trade and private collectors. Among the underbidders was London dealer MacConnal-Mason whose chairman David Mason Sr told ATG: “It’s an attractive picture of an intelligent and independent woman, and was a good size too. The fact that women artists seem to be at the forefront of the market at present also helped it make a high price.”

International acclaim

Dod Procter (née Shaw) was part of the second generation of Newlyn School artists and trained under Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes. She lived and worked closely with the likes of Laura Knight, Gluck, Harold Harvey and of course her husband Ernest Procter.

She shot to fame in 1927 when her picture Morning which depicted a young woman reclining on a bed was awarded ‘Picture of the Year’ at the Royal Academy, and was immediately acquired for the nation by the Tate, where it is still held today.

Exhibiting at other institutions like the Society of Women Artists as well as with dealers Leicester Galleries and Brook Street Galleries, she gained an international clientele with successful shows in the US, Canada, Argentina and at the Venice Biennale from 1922 to 1930.

Greatly supported by art critics like Frank Rutter, the Francophile and proponent of Post-Impressionism, Procter became the second woman to be elected a Royal Academician in 1942 (Laura Knight being the first).

The buyer’s premium at Bellmans was 25%.