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Art market

THE busiest viewing in years, a high selling rate and, most importantly, quality merchandise ensured Sworders’ (22% buyer’s premium) second Modern British art sale was a success.

Just under 90% of the 341 lots of prints, watercolours and paintings got away to a healthy mix of trade, private collectors and home furnishers.

Since holding its inaugural Mod Brit sale back in April 2016, the Essex auction house has become a growing presence in the sector, due in no small part to its close links with the nearby Mod Brit hub of Great Bardfield.

It was this connection and “the growing interest” in the artists from the group over the last few years that influenced Sworders to establish Mod Brit sales in the first place, said Amy Scanlon, who heads the auctions. More dedicated sales are planned in 2017, including an inaugural prints sale in May.

Quite how much specialist sales improve prices is hard to say, but it is clear they make attracting consignments easier. “I don’t know if it necessarily makes a huge difference to the values but it helps with consignments. It also concentrates the mind, making it easier to get people to come and view, ” said Scanlon.

While an £85,000 Eric Ravilious watercolour led the 2016 sale, it was the performance of lesserknown artists that stood out at the Valentine’s Day offering in Stansted Mountfitchet.

A case in point is Great Bardfield artist John Aldridge (1905-83), whose prices have gone up “hugely in the last few years”. The sale featured nine works by the Royal Academician, who moved to Great Bardfield in 1932 and remained there until his death. Though noted for his landscapes of Essex and his garden, the top Aldridge seller was a large 2ft 4in x 3ft (71 x 91cm) oil on canvas of the Pont Du Gard, an impressive Roman aqueduct in southern France. Fresh to the market, it had descended through the family of Henry Madams, the artist’s accountant. It sold for £5500 against a £2000-3000 estimate.

Arguably the more impressive result, however, came for the following lot: a smaller, less polished oil on board painted when Aldridge visited Bridgnorth in Shropshire in 1957.

The 10 x 13in (25 x 34cm) work, acquired from the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden two decades before, sold for double the low estimate at £4000. Its English subject and more manageable size probably accounted for the bullish price.

In a Mod Brit sale featuring the likes of Ben Nicholson and Edward Bawden, it was somewhat unexpected to see another name top the price list. Carel Weight (1908-77), the prolific landscape and portrait painter born and based in London, took the honours with Hammersmith Broadway.

Acquired directly from the artist, the 15 x 22in (38 x 57cm) oil on canvas depicts the sunny London street bustling with buses, cars and people.

It is a move away from the haunting figure compositions, set in suburban surroundings, for which he is best known, and earned him the title ‘Alfred Hitchcock of British painting’.

Thought to date from early in the artist’s career, the picture was nevertheless described by Scanlon as a “box-ticker of a picture with broad appeal”. It sold to one of six phone bidders at £16,500 against an attractive £2500-3500 guide.

Weight’s record at auction stands at £50,000 for another London scene, Crossing the Road, West Brompton Station, that sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2004.

A dozen or so lots from the studio of two former pupils of Weight at the Royal College of Art also featured in the sale. Husband and wife Lionel Bulmer (1919-92) and Margaret Green (1925-2003) were prominent members of the New English Art Club, and spent many years painting the Suffolk coast around Southwold and Walberswick.

The modestly estimated 11-lot group netted £16,100 with just one picture failing to sell. A typical work was an 8 x 10in (20 x 25cm) oil on board of a house and figure in Walberswick. Estimated at £100-150, it went on to make £850. In light of the results, more pictures from the couple’s studio are expected to be consigned to the next sale.

Another artist selling well is Scottish painter John Bellany (1942-2013). In November last year, the artist broke the six-figure barrier when his seminal 1965 work Fisherman in the Snow sold at Sotheby’s Bowie/Collector sale for a premium-inclusive £106,250.

At Sworders, five portraits, a sketch and still-life got away in or above estimate to total just under £20,000. The top-sellers included a portrait of a woman with a pelican that more than doubled hopes at £6200 and a 2ft 11in (91cm) still-life of lilies in a jug, which got away at £5200 against a £3000-5000 guide.

Irish enthusiasm centred on an 18½in x 2ft (47 x 60cm) charcoal watercolour by Louis Le Brocquy (1916-2012). Depicting the coastal city of Imperia in Italy, the 1949 work sold to one of three Irish bidders for £6400 against a £2000- 3000 guide.