In the Modern British market, blue-chip names such as Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink have long been coveted, but more recently, the secondary market has produced some exceptional prices in UK regional salerooms for women artists further down the price scale.
At Lawrences of Crewkerne in January, a ‘tinsel’ painting by Bloomsbury Group associate Dora Carrington sold for £48,000 against an estimate of £5000-7000, less than two years after a still-life by the same artist made a multi-estimate £72,000 at Mallams in Oxford.
Perhaps most dramatic of all was a painting by the little-known Evelyn Dunbar, which had been estimated at a few hundred pounds and sailed to £60,000 at Cheffins of Cambridge in 2017.
Fuelling demand are seasoned collectors addressing the gender imbalance in their collections rather than the emergence of a new breed of buyers, says Amy Scanlon, head of the picture department at Essex saleroom Sworders.
“Most buyers of Modern British art are men – it is still an incredibly male-dominated market. They are just buying more works by women painters,” she adds.
Sworders (23% buyer’s premium) was among the first regional salerooms to tap into the Modern British market, holding its inaugural specialist sale in April 2016. Its proximity to Great Bardfield – the Essex village where many talented Modern British artists descended during the mid 20th century, including Edward Bawden and Eric Rivillous – has helped to secure the auction house as a leading player in the regions.
In January, it offered its biggest Modern British consignment yet, a £540,000 single-owner sale assembled by Cumbrian collector Barbara Holliday. Bullish results for good examples by women artists stood out, such as a £19,500 work by the Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell and a new auction record for Olwyn Bowey at £7400.
Most buyers of Modern British art are men – it is still an incredibly male-dominated market. They are just buying more works by women painters Amy Scanlon Sworders
Wider range of names
More pictures by female names were on offer on February 26 at Sworders’ Modern British and 20th century sale of prints, watercolours, paintings and sculpture.
A top entry was Figures outside a church, an evocative 18 x 22in (46 x 58cm) oil on board by Gill Watkiss (b.1938), whose prices for the artist’s early works have been rising.
It sold to a UK private buyer for £3800, over six times its top guide and among the higher prices fetched at auction. In 2011, Penzance saleroom David Lay sold a similar-sized work of a street scene in St Just-in-Penwith (1970) for £5000.
Watkiss took inspiration from the so-called ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of realist painters, who she encountered via her tutor Edward Middleditch in the 1950s. Her subjects are the everyday lives of ordinary people in the villages of Cornwall where she has lived since the late 1950s.
Art by women who made Cornwall their home was dotted throughout the sale. A signed 2ft x 2ft 6in (63 x 76cm) oil on canvas titled A Cornish Landscape by Mary Duncan (1885-1964) – who moved from Dublin in 1927 and remained in Cornwall for the rest of her life – sold on top estimate for £600.
Meanwhile, a typical flower still-life by well-known St Ives painter Dorothea Sharp (1874-1955) was knocked down above the attractive £2000-3000 estimate for £4600. The 20 x 16in (51 x 41cm) signed oil on board was similar to another still-life of summer flowers that sold for £5000 last May at West Sussex saleroom Bellmans.
Two late landscapes by Nina Hamnett (1890-1956), the so-called ‘Queen of Bohemia’, sold for £1600 and £780 against identical £400-600 guides. Regent’s Canal, a 10 x 14in (24 x 35cm) gouache of a bridge over the London canal, and a smaller watercolour, Cottage at Clonmerle, Ireland, both dated to c.1947.
Pembrokeshire-born Hamnett rose to prominence in artistic circles for her flamboyant and unconventional lifestyle. She modelled for the French avant-garde sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and knew Modigliani, Picasso and Cocteau when she lived in Paris during the First World War.
Influenced in style by these great avant-garde artists, Hamnett produced landscapes and figure compositions, but it is her portraits – especially of her famous friends – that top the price list at around £10,000 at auction.
Elsewhere, Red Rings (2000), a late watercolour by Sandra Blow (1925-2006), more than doubled its estimate to sell for £1300, while Cheek to Cheek, a typically romantic and poetic work by Karolina Larusdottir (b.1944), harking back to her childhood origins in Iceland, sold for £1400 against a £200-300 estimate.
Three out of four oils depicting the Suffolk home of post-war painter Margaret Green (1925-2003) got away, led by the largest of the trio Gardening on a cold day, which took a mid-estimate £700. The quartet were offered alongside 17 pictures and textile works by Green’s lifelong partner Lionel Bulmer.