LONDON—The auction season wound up with sales of Victorian art at Christie’s on Dec. 16 and at Sotheby’s on Dec. 18, amassing a joint total of £7.8 million ($12.5 million), a major increase from the £3.5 million ($5.3 million) total of last December, for a similar number of lots offered.
The sales offered a mix of Victorian and later British art, categorized by Sotheby’s as Edwardian and by Christie’s as British Impressionist. Until about 2004, these works would have been divided between sales of Victorian and modern British art. But since the exit of a number of wealthy collectors from the Victorian field and a general shift in taste towards the modern, the Victorian sales have expanded their range to include the more traditional artists from the British modern category—Alfred Munnings, Edward Seago and the Newlyn School artists Laura and Harold Knight.
One of the star lots at Christie’s was a portrait of Munnings by Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings Reading, which had been discovered by auction house staff hidden behind a painting by his wife, Laura (why and by whom it was hidden remains a mystery). Never exhibited before, it got the auction off to a spirited start, selling to London dealer Richard Green for an artist-record £115,250 ($187,281) against an estimate of £30,000/50,000.
Paintings that have never been on the market before always attract an extra degree of interest, as was the case with Four Loves I Found, a Woman, a Child, a Horse and a Hound, a large group portrait that had been in the family of the artist, George Spencer Watson (1869–1934), since it was painted in 1922. With its strong colors and composition and its bright, airy atmosphere, it was “the artist’s masterpiece,” said London dealer William Thullier, who bought it for a client for a record £151,250 ($247,580) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.
Another important work on the market for the first time was Eve, a ten-foot-high Symbolist painting by the late-Victorian artist Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860–1927). The work, depicting the birth of the first woman, had been given to London’s Ealing Borough Council by the artist’s widow in 1946. Judging that the painting did “not fit within the Borough collection’s ethos” because it is not a “visual record of Ealing,” the Council gained permission from the artist’s heirs to sell the painting to raise money for cultural activities in the borough. Sotheby’s, Bonhams and Christie’s were all consulted about the consignment, and Christie’s came up with the best package, which included an estimate of £700,000/1 million—far above the record £35,000 for the artist—placing him closer to his better-known peers, George Frederic Watts and Frederic Lord Leighton.
Although it is inarguably a museum-quality painting that epitomizes a certain type of Victorian esthetic, the work was sold for a low-estimate £713,250 ($1.2 million)—still the highest price of the week—to a private collector. Informed sources said the buyer was Australian collector John Schaeffer, bidding though London dealer Angela Nevill, who was in the saleroom. Schaeffer’s collection will be shown next year at the Gallery of New South Wales in Australia (May 19–Aug. 29). Schaeffer had been one of the driving forces behind the market until a few years ago; experts believe the news that he has returned to collecting could give a boost to the Victorian-art market.
Other record prices were achieved with single bids against aggressive estimates, which presumably had been set high in order to win consignments from competing auctioneers. A scene of rural revelry by William Powell Frith (1819–1909) sold for £349,250 ($569,280) against an estimate of £300,000/500,000, and Our Lady of Promise, a jewel-like religious painting by the stained-glass artist Edward Reginald Frampton (1870–1923), sold for £145,250 ($236,800) against an estimate of £120,000/180,000—a coup for the anonymous seller, who bought it last August at the Island Auction Rooms on the Isle of Wight for just £36,000 ($57,600).
There were naturally also some failures among the higher-value lots, which meant both houses struggled to meet their targets. Christie’s could find no one to pay the minimum £100,000 for an Edward Seago circus scene belonging to circus impresario Gerry Cottle, or to buy sentimental scenes by Frederick Morgan and Charles Burton Barber. But the £3.4 million total, with 73 percent of lots sold, was a big improvement on last December’s £1.7 million ($2.55 million) sale, in which half the lots were unsold.
U.S. Buying Boosts Sotheby’s Sale
At Sotheby’s, the £4.3 million ($7.1 million) total and 62 percent sold-by-lot rate—despite the failure of two high-estimated works by Munnings—was an even greater improvement from last year’s sale, which totaled £1.8 million ($2.7 million). Seasoned U.S. collectors were competing for Neoclassical works by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Edward John Poynter and John William Godward.
Bernard Williams, a Christie’s expert in Irish paintings, faced stiff competition while bidding for Pan and the Dancing Fairies by Irish artist Daniel Maclise, which he bought for £301,250 ($482,000), double the £100,000/150,000 estimate. He also had to contend with fierce bidding for On the Cliffs, a vivid sea view by Laura Knight, which he bought for £646,050 ($1 million)—the highest price yet paid for an oil painting by the artist (estimate: £250,000/350,000).
Highlighting the diversity of the material in these sales, London gallery MacConnal-Mason paid a record £337,250 ($539,600) for Charles Spencelayh’s detailed The Old Dealer (The Old Curiosity Shop), on a £250,000/350,000 estimate. Although he was technically a 20th-century artist (he died in 1958), Spencelayh’s somewhat anachronistic paintings have always appealed to Victorian-art collectors. MacConnal-Mason gallery also outbid the Fine Art Society for George Clausen’s December, ca. 1882, buying the work for £157,250 ($251,600) on an estimate of £100,000/150,000.
One active buyer at the sale was dealer Peter Nahum, who underbid for the top lot, Laura Knight’s On the Cliffs, and John Atkinson Grimshaw’s moonlit Prince’s Dock, Hull, 1881, which sold for £397,250 ($635,600) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000—the third-highest price for the artist. Nahum was more successful in the lower price bracket, securing works by Sidney Richard Percy, Henry H. Parker, Edgar Hunt and Arthur Wardle.