To some minds, such as Wyndham Lewis, who called them “elitist, corrupt and talentless”, this allure has placed undeserved attention on their work. To others, however, the focus on their unconventional arrangements – “they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles” – has overshadowed the importance and value of the art itself.
While biographies and biopics seem to appear every few years, some notable exhibitions over the past decade has led to some reassessment of the group’s works and placed them more in the context of the wider art movements that were evolving at the time. These shows have also helped garner some greater interest including from abroad.
Commercially, prices of major Bloomsbury works have risen in line with the general growth of the Modern British art market. But the market remains fairly selective and works by Duncan Grant, for example (whose pictures appear more regularly on the market than Roger Fry and Dora Carrington), range across a wide spectrum with some examples obtainable for a few thousand pounds at auction.
Notable Bell works
When it comes to Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), her works are generally scarcer too, partly because her London studio suffered bomb damage in the war and many works were lost, especially earlier examples.
But two notable works by Bell that appeared at Duke’s (25% buyer’ premium) auction in Dorchester on March 19 gave the latest measure of demand for the most desirable Bloomsbury pictures.
Her portrait of Desmond MacCarthy (1877-1952), depicting the sitter reading in an interior at Charleston, was almost as ‘Bloomsbury’ as you can get.
The sitter was a journalist and drama critic who had been a member of the Apostles intellectual society at university in Cambridge where he met and befriended the future Bloomsbury founding member Lytton Strachey. In 1906 he married Mary ‘Molly’ Warre-Cornish, herself a writer and a lifelong friend of Bell.
It was Warre-Cornish who instigated the Memoir Club in 1920 at which its members, after dining together, read short autobiographical papers which now form an important record of early Bloomsbury, particularly those by John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf.
The setting of Charleston – the farmhouse in Sussex to which Bell originally moved with Grant in 1916 – could be identified by the vivid wall -hangings behind the subject.
The date of the portrait was probably 1943, a year in which MacCarthy stayed twice at Charleston where he was also painted by Grant (a portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery along with a group painting of the Memoir Club by Bell which includes the figures of both Desmond and Molly).
The 23½ x 19¾in (60 x 50cm) oil on board, which was monogrammed to the lower right, came to auction from a Sussex collection based very near to Charleston itself. Indeed, Duke’s has a good track record with Bloomsbury pictures, having sold a self-portrait by Roger Fry which came from the artist’s family for £32,000 in 2013.
Here, the painting was estimated at £8000-12,000 and, after a lengthy bidding battle, it sold for £30,000 to a UK private buyer.
It was underbid by dealer Dr Robert Travers, whose London gallery Piano Nobile staged an exhibition dedicated to Bell and Grant in 2018. Travers told ATG he felt the portrait was “a good vigorous, study” and that, with buyer’s premium and VAT added, it had “made its price”.
He noted that the 2018 exhibition received interest from not just the UK but also the US and Far East.
“I think this helped warm up the market, as shown by Duke’s results. For a variety of diverse reasons their work in all media is receiving a great deal of interest,” said Dr Travers.
“I see their early works continuing to gain in popularity and value with increasing demand for loans to museum shows in the UK and abroad.”
Second time lucky
While Dr Travers missed out on the portrait at Duke’s, he was the successful buyer of the following Bell lot: a view of flowers in a vase by a window at the drawing room of Long Crichel House.
The 13½ x 9½in (34.5 x 24cm) oil on canvas showing the garden and graveyard beyond dated from 1951 and was painted on one of two occasions when Bell stayed at the Dorset residence. The house itself was the location of a male literary salon that included Bloomsbury figures such as Raymond Mortimer, Edward Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Eardley Knollys.
The picture came to auction from a private London collection and, benefiting from a known location, attractive tones and composition, it again overshot its estimate – in this case £6000-9000 – and was knocked down at £9500.
The same London source provided Duke’s with another picture that drew demand against a relatively attractive estimate.
The 2ft 6in x 19¾in (75 x 50cm) oil on canvas by Mary Fedden (1915- 2012) was a fairly typical still-life from 1991 but the £8000-12,000 estimate did not look excessive for an artist whose works regularly sell above this level at auction.
This signed and dated depiction of lilies, eggs and a lemon had a simple arrangement and light colours which made it attractive to the artist’s consistent auction following. It was knocked down at £14,000 to a private buyer who outbid the trade.
The sum made a useful contribution to the £155,000 total from the 195-lot picture section of the Duke’s sale.
Elsewhere at the auction, a group of four works by Maxwell Ashby Armfield (1881-1972) sold for a combined £10,500. They came from a vendor who had links to the artist Alexander A Ballard, a contemporary and great friend of Armfield.
Uppermost among them was a portrait of his mother depicted half-length among flowering foliage in a landscape.
Works by the versatile artist come up occasionally at auction including his distinctive pictures in tempera – indeed, he wrote two books on this traditional form of painting, A Manual of Tempera Painting (1930) and Tempera Painting Today (1946).
This signed portrait from 1905, however, was an oil on canvas laid on board. It measured 13 x 7½in (33 x 19cm) and reflected the Arts & Crafts style Armfield adopted in this early period. It came in a frame made by Joseph Southall in whose Edgbaston studio the artist had studied.
The work was a ‘known’ picture which had featured in exhibitions dedicated to the artist, including one at The Fine Art Society, London, in 1978. At Duke’s, it was pitched at a relatively modest £1000-2000 and sold at £5500.
While his 1916 view of Maddison Square Gardens in New York (a work with provenance to Sir Elton John) sold for a hefty £102,000 including premium at Christie’s in June 2007, and a larger 1930s tempera titled The Blue Pool sold at David Lay in Cornwall for £13,000 January 2014, this price was among the higher sums for a portrait or figurative work by Armfield sold at a UK regional auction.