With the amount of auctions taking place being reduced, bidders may have scanned through the lots offered at the Lyon & Turnbull (25% buyer’s premium) Contemporary and Post-War Art sale on April 16 a bit more carefully, for instance.
While it remains to be seen whether the coronavirus crisis will create a bigger reassessment in values at the upper end or lower end, it was works by some of the less well-known names that commanded more attention at this live auction staged in Edinburgh but online only.
The printed catalogue came out just before lockdown came into effect. With no physical exhibition of the lots possible, L&T Contemporary art specialist Carly Shearer produced a video from her living room to show the range of works including those at more accessible price points.
It may have previously been widely assumed that you need a public viewing to garner interest in works by less familiar names, but Shearer believed that the closer attention clients paid to both the printed and online versions of the catalogue brought benefits across the auction – especially for the more affordable lots.
She also reported that many people appeared to enjoy the bidding experience from their sofas more than they expected and speculated that this could lead to a greater transition to online bidding in this sector of the market come the end of lockdown.
Bids on the phone were permitted only on lots valued at over £3000 but, on the day, a good number of works estimated at below this level performed well and collectively boosted the overall result.
The hammer total was £271,000 with 192 of the 214 lots finding buyers (90%). The selling rate at these sales normally runs in the 80s so the performance here was pleasing to the auction house and indicated that buyers seem content with L&T’s arrangements for ‘no contact’ delivery (using Mailboxes and Aardvark Art Services) and for the offer of free-of-charge storage for buyers.
Debt to Eardley
Among the works in demand was a coastal scene by Lil Neilson (1938-98). The Kirkcaldy-born painter certainly has a following but is not as recognised as her great friend Joan Eardley nor her tutor Alberto Morrocco, under whom she studied for her post-diploma year in 1960-61.
Her work owed a debt to the former in particular, both technically and in her choice of subject matter – indeed, after Eardley’s death Neilson lived and worked in her friend’s own studio.
Coastal scenes by Neilson do occasionally appear at auction, generally making £2500 or less. This painting, however, was arguably more striking than most with its vibrant brushstrokes and colours. It was also a wide-format work – a signed and indistinctly dated oil on board, measuring 15in x 3ft 8in (38cm x 1.12m) – and came fresh to the market with the private vendor having owned it a long time.
The estimate of £1000-1500 was therefore relatively attractive but not out of keeping with some previous results. It drew decent interest from a number of parties before it was knocked down at £3800, a price toward the upper end for the artist and perhaps an indication that a number of bidders had identified it as an appealing proposition at a time when fewer buying opportunities than usual were around.
Emerging from the fog
Another work by a Scottish artist that caught the eye was Foggy Day by Victoria Crowe (b.1945).
Having taught painting and drawing at Edinburgh College of Art for 30 years (she took over the botanical drawing class when Elizabeth Blackadder retired), Crowe has exhibited at some important galleries and been commissioned to paint portraits of poet Kathleen Raine, composer Thea Musgrave, Prof Peter Higgs, a double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch and HRH Prince Charles.
Her works have also received greater attention recently thanks to the first major retrospective of her work held at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh last year, which demonstrated her versality for both portraits and landscapes.
This 15 x 19in (39 x 48cm) signed mixed-media composition was dated 1978 and came from a Scottish vendor. It depicted a rabbit hutch in a sparse open space but had an economy of touch that appealed to certain buyers. Again, the estimate of £1000-1500 was not deemed excessive and, after decent competition, it was knocked down at £2800 to a UK buyer.
Elsewhere, a watercolour offered with the same obtainable-looking estimate was Alasdair Gray’s (1934-2019) Portrait of Katey, depicting a friend and editor of the artist and writer’s well-known books (which include his seminal novel Lanark from 1981). The picture included a personal inscription on the verso, lending it added appeal.
Gray studied design and mural painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1952-57 and later developed his recognisable style of strong lines and vivid graphics as he self-illustrated his books and poems.
The following that his written works have generated has spilled over to his pictures and his portraits in particular, when they appear, can fetch a few thousand pounds at auction.
This 20in x 2ft 1in (51 x 63.5cm) ink and watercolour, although unlikely to fetch as much an oil painting, did generate bidding at the sale and sold at £1300 to a private buyer in Scotland.
Davie takes top spot
The top lot of the L&T sale was by an artist whose name is certainly well-established on the market.
The Abstract work by Alan Davie (1920-2014), Bird through the wall, No. 8, was a signed 5 x 8ft (1.53 x 2.44m) oil on canvas across two panels.
As with many of the artist’s works, the composition was carefully crafted to show painting as a continuous process with no beginning or end.
Although it featured some trademark hallucinatory motifs and bold colours, as well as having provenance to New York gallery Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer, the 1971 picture ended up selling below its £15,000-20,000 estimate at £13,000.
Conversely, a signed watercolour by Davie further down the price-scale brought stronger competition. Poet creating an egg from 1964, measuring 22 x 2ft 6in (55 x 75cm), overshot a £2500-3500 pitch and was knocked down at £4600.
Meanwhile, the top-selling sculpture at L&T was an Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005) bronze. Maquette for Great Ormond Street was a typically formed example of his sculptures based on themes related to industrial engineering, but here had an added figurative element.
The signed 11in (28cm) high bronze sculpture on a wooden base came from a small edition conceived in 1993 and was produced to raise funds for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (no full-size version was ever created).
While other examples have appeared at auction in the last few years, the lot sold below its £8000- 12,000 estimate at £7500 to a private Scottish collector.