Held on October 29, this was the third sale held at the Farnham, Surrey, auction house since the firm was launched in the summer by former dealer and John Nicholson’s specialist Buffy Parker.
The depiction of a scarlet ibis by the important French draughtsman Nicolas Robert (1614-85) was the most prominent work in a small but intriguing group of bird pictures from a private collection.
The five works all had provenance to French businessman and collector Marcel Jeanson, whose extensive ornithological library had been dispersed at a Sotheby’s Monaco sale in 1988. With all of them selling in Surrey, together they raised a combined £39,400.
Robert was a natural history artist whose flower and bird pictures became highly influential.
Combining scientific and aesthetic qualities, they helped him attract the patronage of the French royal family and he was commissioned by Gaston d’Orleans, brother of Louis XIII, to create a suite of watercolours depicting the rare plants and exotic birds he had assembled in his garden at Blois and the Ménagerie at Versailles.
Also a miniaturist and etcher, Robert was highly versatile working in different media. He executed these watercolours on vellum, which means they have tended to survive much better than many works on paper from this date.
While most of his commissioned works entered the king’s personal collection – where they were known collectively as the Velins du Roi (the King’s Vellums) – many were also engraved and distributed more widely, helping them to inspire future generations of natural historians and artists, as well as collectors in this sector today.
Three out of the five works at the auction in Farnham, Surrey, were attributed to Robert but this ibis stood out for its fine brushwork and startling colours.
The subject itself is a bird indigenous to South America and the Caribbean (today it is one of two national birds of Trinidad and Tobago) and its striking plumage, long beak and expressive courtship rituals have inspired writers and poets, as well as later great zoologists and ornithologists including John James Audubon, to pay it particular attention.
The 12 x 8¼in (31 x 21cm) watercolour, with a gold painted border, was offered with a £6000-8000 estimate. After a good bidding contest, it was knocked down at £19,000 to an overseas buyer.
The price looks relatively strong given that another Robert watercolour of a scarlet ibis made $27,500 (£17,660) at Sotheby’s New York in January 2012, while one of a flamingo took £14,000 at Christie’s in June 2000.
The other two Robert works at Parker both made £5500 against estimates of £4000-6000: a Red Bishop (Euplectes Orix) and one of a Pin Tailed Sandgrouse (Pterocles Alachata).
The collection also yielded two later watercolours by French ornithological artist Auguste Pelletier (fl.1816-46), one depicting a Wood Hoopoe and the other a Collared Trogon, that sold below estimate for £4400 and £5000 respectively.
Birds aside, the strongest competition at the sale came for a portrait of the 19th century bearded woodcarver John Herkomer. Born in Waal, Bavaria, he emigrated to the US in the 1840s where he became a notable craftsman in New York and Cleveland. Indeed, some prominent homes in Cleveland still retain his fine staircases and interior decoration.
He left the US with his family in 1883, moving to Bushey in England where his nephew, the well-known painter Sir Hubert Herkomer, was living and able to offer him employment.
The portrait at the auction was by Ernest Borough Johnson (1866-1949), a pupil at the art school in the Hertfordshire town that Sir Hubert had established and run from 1883-1904.
The 16 x 20in (41 x 51cm) oil on canvas, signed with the artist’s monogram, shows John Herkomer reading a book. It came to auction from a private collector and was estimated at just £100-200.
Although a handful of works by Johnson have made over £1000 at auction (his record stands at £5000), most pictures have tended to sell under £500.
The subject of this work ensured that it met with strong bidding including from Bushey Park Museum. The museum, which has a large collection of art, artefacts and ephemera relating to Herbert Herkomer, eventually saw off an online underbidder when the gavel fell at £3200.
The auction house said the work will go on view once the museum can reopen after the lockdown and it was encouraging to see a local institution able to secure funding for such a fitting purchase in these straitened times.