“Sometimes when I get to the studio I’ll put on an album, and particularly when I put on David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth, within a moment I can find myself walking alongside John Constable in a meadow.”
Echoes of the indomitable 19th century landscapist are a key feature in the work of British contemporary artist David Kim Whittaker (b.1964), as he explained in an interview with the Independent in 2015.
Whittaker, a self-taught Newquay painter who has gender dysphoria, creates metaphysical portraits of the human condition, combining bucolic landscapes with swirling, distorted shapes and colours – aptly described as a ‘mash-up of John Constable and Francis Bacon’.
On the secondary market, Whittaker’s prices have grown rapidly over the last few years. In March, Phillips London set a new record at a premium-inclusive £81,250 for Whittaker’s monumental 2011 painting Self Portrait Four, Jewel Box.
The latest work by the artist to come to market was a smaller oil consigned from a private collection in Bath to the Design & Modern British and Post-War Art sale at Mallams (20% buyer’s premium) on May 18.
Titled The Devadasi English Landscape (referencing Indian girls who are married to god), the 2ft 6in (77cm) oil and acrylic canvas formed part of the exhibition A Beautiful Kind of Certainty held at the Anima-Mundi gallery in St Ives in 2011, the year Whittaker won the prestigious Towry Award.
Guided at £600-900, it drew plenty of interest and was knocked down to one of three phones active on the lot at £7500. “He is definitely an artist to watch out for,” said Mallams valuer Max Fisher.
The piece was among the top prices in the £261,000 sale and featured in a weighty contemporary art section alongside works by Damien Hirst and David Hockney.
“We are seeing a shift in the market not just for the Modern British names but for more contemporary artists,” said Fisher. “In this sale we had a more even mix between contemporary names and classic 20th century British artists, and it did seem to create a buzz.”
A mid-estimate £5000 was paid by an India-based buyer for a work by Sadanand K Bakre (1920-2007) of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, the acclaimed pioneers of modern art in India.
The 2ft 6in (76cm) square oil on board, titled The Sorrowful Woman, was painted at a busy period in Bakre’s career in the 1960s, when he was exhibiting at galleries in London, Paris, Switzerland and the US.
Purchased at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, in London in 1971, it has been in a private collection since.
Son of famous soldier
Among the Modern British art to draw interest was a painting by Earl George A Haig (1918-2009).
The colourful 2ft 5in x 3ft 3in (75cm x 1.01m) oil on canvas called Apple Orchard, Orzes, had not been seen on the market since 1990 and sold for a multi-estimate £4800. The price appears to be a new auction record for the artist, replacing the £4200 taken at Bonhams in Edinburgh in April 2015 for a smaller winterscape.
According to his obituary in The Guardian, Haig “spent a lifetime struggling to decide whether he was primarily a fine modern painter or the son of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander-in-chief in the First World War”. The younger Haig, who served in the Second World War as an officer in the Royal Scots Greys and was a prisoner at Colditz, held his first solo exhibitions at the Redfern Gallery in London and the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh in 1949.
Nash, Piper and Epstein
A typical John Nash (1893-1977) watercolour titled Wooded Bank, Meifod, Montgomeryshire sold just over estimate at £5500 while a large woollen tapestry by John Piper (1903-92) – Foliate Head signed and numbered 7/70 – tipped over its top guide to sell for £2800.
A pair of floral pictures by Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) also got away for £3200 and £1300 respectively. Such studies, which belong to an unusual series of nature and flower works Epstein started in the 1930s, have a good following on the market but fetch rather less than his trademark sculptures.
The few casualties among the pictures at Mallams included the highest-estimated lot of the sale: a seated nude by Bernard Dunstan that failed to attract a buyer estimated at £8000-12,000.