The hoopla surrounding the sale next week of The Barbara Holliday Collection of Modern British Art, Jewellery and Antique Furnishings at Sworders of Stansted Mountfitchet should be enough to deter even the most optimistic wannabe collectors on small budgets.
Indeed, the sale catalogue features a mouth-watering who’s-who of Mod Brit art: Sir Edward Paolozzi, Dame Elisabeth Frink, Sir Jacob Epstein and Mary Fedden are but a few of the blue-chip artists collected by a wealthy and discerning Cumbrian farmer’s wife.
The total hammer for the sale, which includes furniture and jewellery, has a top estimate of £430,000.
The artists' friend
An intriguing fact about Barbara Holliday is that during the heyday of the Mod Brit art movement in the 1950-70s, she managed to befriend many of already-famous painters and sculptors whose work she purchased – a mutual love of gardening sometimes acting as the glue.
Correspondence with artists relating to the relevant lots accompanies those works in the sale. “She had lots of correspondence with these artists,” says sale curator Amy Scanlon, Sworders' head of pictures and a Mod Brit specialist. “If she bought a painting, the artist would send her a bill and she would send a letter, they’d reply and friendships built up. She was as interested in the artist as in the painting.”
The Barbara Holliday Collection is undoubtedly blue-chip: many pictures are by Royal Academicians and the top painting is lot 385 by Sir Cedric Morris, The Red Pond (1932), an oil on canvas estimated at £15,000-20,000.
Yet for those with tighter wallets there is still plenty to realistically covet, as ATG discovers when talking to curator Amy Scanlon.
ATG: Can you give the collector of Mod Brit art on a tight budget one tip for this sale?
Amy Scanlon: Look at artists associated with the big Mod Brit names, but whose value is still bubbling under. Take Mick Rooney RA (b. 1944), for example, a pupil of Carel Weight RA (1908-1997) at the Royal College of Art.
While a picture by Rooney for sale at the RA’s Summer Exhibition might have had a high price tag, the market might not agree with that price. His secondary market isn’t up there yet with the more established names.
Rooney’s art tends to be quite fun and interesting and you might get something for under £500. We have four lots by Rooney in the January 15 sale – the top estimate being £600.
ATG: But the Barbara Holliday Collection is going to be a landmark Mod Brit sale. It’s no place for small budgets, is it?
AS: Because it’s a deceased estate – Barbara Holliday passed away last year – we have been conservative with the estimates and everything is there to be sold.
There are plenty of things by even major names with low estimates, such as a Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) drawing estimated at £120 to £180. Sheila Fell RA (1931-1979) pictures tend to start at £10,000 but we have two very personal drawings of Fell’s mother in at £300-400, so you can have a part of her history for that price.
And while you might think Carel Weight is out of reach, as he’s a major name in the Mod Brit world, his values have slipped over the past few years. It’s a fashion thing as other names come on to the market.
Have a look at lot 226 by Carel Weight, Figures on a path in a village, an oil on board measuring 49 x 64 cms and estimated at £700-1000 (pictured above). It’s quite typical of the artist with mysterious figures, which in some of his paintings disappear off the canvas as he creates an atmosphere.
Most artists make the figures the prominent part of a composition but with Weight, you get just a glance at them. This is an unusual composition and so recognisable as Weight because of that.
ATG: Barbara Holliday was an avid gardener, connecting her to artists such as Olwyn Bowey RA (b. 1936).
AS: Work by Olwyn Bowey is a great example of changing tastes in art. Victorian watercolours have faded as demand for art that's big and bold grows. You can get a one-metre wide Mod Brit painting for £1000 that will look really dramatic on your wall.
There are 20 Olwyn Boweys in the Holliday sale and many of them have that impact.
Lot 46 is titled Myrtle’s hanging baskets (1989), an oil on board measuring 94 x 94 cms estimated at £700-£1000. Like many artists Barbara Holliday befriended, Olwyn was interested in horticulture and plants are illuminated and celebrated in this painting.
ATG: An invidious question this, given you’re a Mod Brit expert, Amy, but do you see a time when that market runs out of steam?
AS: Even at the major London auction houses, it's only now that Mod Brit pictures are making millions of pounds, yet are achieving nowhere near the value of contemporary art.
So, yes, while Mod Brit has been accelerating year-by-year, it still has a long way to go. We did our first Mod Brit sale in 2016 and now we’re doing two a year plus two print sales which are Modern and Contemporary – all because that’s what the market wants.
We find that artists of the Great Bardfield group – named after the Essex village where artists Edward Bawden (1903-1989) and Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) settled in 1925, to be followed by other artists – are a lot more expensive to buy now.
But others in the group, like John Aldridge (1905-1983), have come up the ranks more recently and would have been £300 a few years ago, but are in the £1000s now.
The message for collectors on a budget is, there’s always another artist to step into the ‘next big thing’ shoes and as auctioneers, we look to bring them to market.
This sale is viewable on thesaleroom.com on Tuesday 15 January starting at 10am