While prevailing fashions may have gone against some areas of the traditional art and antiques market, Modern British art is a sector that has benefited from changing tastes over recent decades.
The market has grown steadily since the early 1990s with a developing collector base coupled with lively dealer activity helping make the category arguably one of the most vibrant in the business.
For auction houses across the country, Mod Brit sales now account for a key chunk of their annual totals and this has led to a significant number of salerooms now holding specialist events. This has been one area that has helped replace declining revenues from traditional items in the lower and middle market.
Fortunately, a decent supply of fresh Mod Brit art still becomes available each year and it often tends to be quite spread out across different geographical regions. Indeed, unlike Old Masters or Victorian pictures for example, plenty of works are now appearing on the secondary market that have had only one careful owner, while many notable consignments continue to emerge that were bought directly from artists themselves and had never left the owner’s family.
Certain sub-sectors within the market have been gaining demand significantly in the last five years, even as signs of general selectivity creep in more and more. And despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, some of these areas are still showing heathy returns.
Prints and sculptures (usually created in editions) have been doing well for some time, while some notable interest has come recently for works by Bloomsbury artists, the East Anglian School or the Camden Town group, for example.
Important exhibitions held at public galleries have brought certain Modern British artists to wider acclaim, while dealers staging specialist shows have become a common sight.
Auden portrait ticks the boxes
Works with a rare or engaging subject, and also with the ‘right’ date, will often cause sparks to fly in the Modern British art market.
Such an example came at Bonhams (27.5/25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) earlier this year when a portrait of the writer EM Forster by Roger Fry (1866-1934) sold for £260,000 in July, setting a record for any Bloomsbury Group picture.
And something similar happened, albeit slightly further down the price scale, at the latest Modern British and Irish art sale at the firm’s Knightsbridge rooms on September 16.
On offer was a rare example at auction of a work by Maurice Feild (1905-88), an artist and tutor at the Slade School of Art. He was described by the painter, writer and scholar Lawrence Gowing (1918-91) – one of Feild’s many students – as “among the unsung influences on British painting”.
Only a relatively small number of works by Feild have ever emerged at auction with all bar a handful selling for under £500. The previous highest price came for a scene of a riverbank from 1959 titled On the Lugg that made £1200 at Christie’s in October 2005 (source: Artprice by Art Market).
The 22 x 15in (56 x 38cm) oil on canvas at Bonhams, however, did not have not a routine subject. It was a portrait of WH Auden from 1937.
The late 1930s was a key period in Auden’s life when he produced some of his greatest poetry and also worked on some his best-known collaborations with fellow writer Christopher Isherwood.
The portrait was painted in the same year he travelled to Spain where he experienced first-hand the horrors of civil war, providing the inspiration for his poem Spain. It was also shortly before he went to China with Isherwood, working on their joint book Journey to a War.
Feild and Auden had become colleagues and friends during their time teaching at the Downs School, Colwall, in the early 1930s. The year 1937 was also important for Feild as it was at this time that he became an early associate of the Euston Road School of artists.
Photographs of Auden are common – the National Portrait Gallery has a superb group in its collection – but painted portraits are a great rarity. This picture also had an intimate quality: it was an informal portrait by one friend painting another.
The picture was signed, titled and dated, and it had remained with the artist, passing to his descendants after he died. Here, it came to auction from a private UK vendor and was estimated at £800-1200 – a level seemingly determined by previous auction prices for Feild.
However, the subject of the work meant that fervent interest from both trade and private buyers emerged and, after a dramatic competition, it was knocked down at £28,000 – a huge record for the artist. With the market for Feild reaching a new level, more works may now find their way to auction – a trend that has played out many times already in the Mod Brit sector.
Informal Wyndham Lewis
Another informal work at Bonhams bringing a strong contest was a small sketch by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957).
Two Figures in a Restaurant, a 4¼ x 7in (11 x 18cm) pen and ink and watercolour on paper from c.1909, also came to auction with excellent provenance. It had been owned by the artist’s close friend Agnes Bedford (1892-1969), a concert pianist who was also a friend and collaborator of Ezra Pound. She had assisted Lewis with reading and writing after he went blind in his later years.
Bedford owned a number of Lewis’ famed Vorticist works which were exhibited at the Tate’s 1956 exhibition dedicated to the artist.
This earlier and simpler work, which also had another pen and ink sketch to the reverse, appeared closely related to two drawings in the V&A collection, The Theatre Manager and Anthony, both from 1909.
This meant that it likely dated from a key period for the artist. At around this time Lewis was experimenting with primitivist and proto- Cubist styles that were just beginning to emanate out of Paris. Indeed, Lewis is credited with being the first British artist whose works showed a knowledge of Pablo Picasso’s groundbreaking Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907.
The lot at Bonhams was a rare opportunity to acquire such a work, even if it was executed on a “throwaway receipt” as stated in the catalogue.
Estimated at £1000-1500, the lot attracted international interest and was eventually knocked down at £8500 to a collector in North America.
Trevelyan on Gozo
Also commanding good competition at Bonhams was a Surrealist landscape by Julian Trevelyan (1910-88). The 2ft 6in x 3ft (75 x 91cm) signed oil on canvas from 1963 depicted the Maltese island of Gozo which the artist and his wife Mary Fedden visited on a number of occasions to sketch the dramatic landscape.
A number of prints and works on paper were produced by Trevelyan depicting the island but a major painting has not been offered at auction since one made £1900 at Christie’s back in June 1991.
The artist’s market has moved on a long way since then and extra interest has come recently after a retrospective was held at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in 2018-19 that helped raise his profile.
Gorge on Gozo also came to auction with good provenance, having been acquired directly from the artist by a member of the vendor’s family.
With all this in its favour, the £3000-5000 estimate was not deemed excessive and it was taken to £26,000, at which point it was knocked down to a private European collector. The price was in the top 10 auction results for the artist and highest for a picture of Gozo.