The February 20 auction in New Bond Street covered the major movements in Britain and Europe during the 19th century: from Romanticism, Orientalism and British Impressionism to the Pre-Raphaelites, and works by painters who lived well into the 20th century.
With the main interest coming from buyers based in the UK, Europe and the Middle East, the sale totalled just over £2m with 74% of lots getting away – a reasonable level for a picky market such as this.
Bonhams’ department specialist Emma Gordon said: “We were hesitant and anxious before the sale, considering Brexit and the [slowness of the] 19th century market, but the sale performed well, and it has given us a lot of encouragement. There is a lot of energy in this market still.”
Life in the market
Orientalism – a term used to describe the western genre scenes of ‘everyday life’ in Middle Eastern, north African and Asian cultures – remains among the more lucrative fields of 19th century art. At Bonhams, two Orientalist oils led the day, both painted by Austrian artist Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), a coveted name among collectors.
Executed during the peak of his career, At the Mosque (1895) and Respect (1902) sold for a combined £880,000, which accounted for nearly half of the sale total.
“These came from the period when Deutsch was doing his hyper-realism, which gave his work a highly detailed photographic quality. Later in his life, he got a little more Impressionistic,” said Gordon.
Described by her as in “sparkling condition”, the oils had not appeared on the market since they were acquired from the London gallery M Newman some 40 years ago.
Drawing stronger bidding was Respect, a 2ft 1in x 18in (63 x 46cm) oil on panel of two Arab scholars against a backdrop of ablaq stonework, based on the 14th century complex of Sultan Barquq – one of the most widely visited and photographed monuments on Cairo’s maze-like streets.
Guided at £250,000-350,000, it was eventually knocked down to an ‘international collector’ for £420,000.
At the Mosque, an earlier and marginally smaller 2ft x 15½in (60 x 39cm) oil on panel, depicts one of Deutsch’s trademark Arab guards lounging against a wall together with a lute and several other objects. (These ‘props’ had probably come back with the artist from travels to north Africa and rearranged in his studio in Paris.)
This decorative display was deemed the stronger image of the two before the Bonhams sale, appearing on the catalogue cover and with a higher guide of £300,000-500,000. Although it made more at £450,000, it failed to match the enthusiasm for Respect, selling within its guide to the same collector.
Another of Deutsch’s trademark sentinels nearly set an auction record for the painter when it sold for €2.28m (with premium) in Paris last October at Sotheby’s Pierre Bergé sale. Around twice the size of At the Mosque, it depicted a languid, richly-attired guard resting against a column.
A third Deutsch oil at Bonhams, The Performance (1885), showing an African dancer caught mid-step during an energetic routine, failed to draw interest and was left unsold against a £100,000-150,000 guide.
The scene contrasted with the relaxed and contented subjects usually associated with the Orientalists, and it may have been for this reason that interest did not materialise.
The other high-flying failure on the day was Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s (1836-1912) 1868 work, The Education of the Children of Clotilde and Clovis, unseen on the market since 1987.
Larger than any known painting from this early period of his career, the 2ft 1in x 2ft 11in (65 x 91cm) oil on panel depicts an imagined scene from Merovingian history; the stoic queen Clotilde overseeing the training of her young children to avenge the murder of her parents by Gundobad, King of the Burgundians.
Its challenging subject – quite different from Alma-Tadema’s famous languorous classical beauties – was perhaps the main reason the work went unsold against a £150,000-250,000 estimate.
Across the sale, most of the material performed largely in line with expectations, with moments of unbridled bidding reserved for the lots that ticked the boxes.
A rare peak-period Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) from 1888 was knocked down to a collector bidding from the US for £75,000, well above its £30,000-50,000 guide.
Privately consigned from a long-standing UK collection, the 2ft x 2ft 6in (61 x 76cm) oil on canvas depicts boys and girls fishing on the old bridge at Street-an-Nowan between Penzance and Newlyn, a favourite motif of the Newlyn School leader.
As well as its rarity (later Forbes pictures are more common), it was described in the catalogue note as a “remarkable composition” unrivalled “throughout Forbes’ entire oeuvre”.
Meanwhile, a portrait of a girl’s profile by the maverick French painter Thomas Couture (1815-79) was knocked down at £40,000 – four times the top guide. Taken from a series of melancholic portraits by the academic artist, the signed 18¼ x 15in (46 x 38cm) oil on canvas had passed by descent from the collection of a ‘Dutch noble family’ in c.1900.
After winning the first-class medal at the Paris Salon for his masterpiece Les Romains de la décadence (now in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris), Couture became disenfranchised with the established ateliers.
He wrote a book on the subject and opened his own independent school for history painting. Among his pupils were later luminaries of the art world including Edouard Manet and Henri Fantin-Latour.
Five works by Laura Knight
All five pictures by Laura Knight (1877-1970) found buyers in or around expectations, as she maintained her position as one of the most bankable female talents, spanning both 19th and 20th century art.
A large preparatory study of Knight’s hugely ambitious 1920s circus painting Charivari was knocked down on bottom estimate to a buyer for £50,000 (pictured in Previews, ATG No 2379).
The chaotic scene of performing elephants, piebald ponies, trapeze artists, tight rope walkers, clowns and acrobats, stilt walkers and contortionists, was commissioned by Major Evelyn Atherley, who kept requesting Knight to add more characters. She obliged, against the advice of her husband, Harold Knight.
Asked whether she was disappointed with the result, Gordon said that both its vast size and “busy composition” meant the picture “had not been to everyone’s taste”.