For many years Allen and Beryl Freer lived in a detached Sixties house in a suburb south of Manchester.
Housed within its modest interior, however, was their remarkable collection of Modern British art.
The group, which began in 1951 and became well-known in Mod Brit collecting circles, included works by Ivon Hitchens, John Nash, Eileen Agar, Prunella Clough, Keith Vaughan and John Piper.
These and hundreds of other works by celebrated names in the Mod Brit canon were hung throughout the house, many bought directly from the artists.
Allen began his working life as an English teacher, and then, from 1962, as an inspector for English for the Manchester Education Committee where his job involved ensuring poetry and art were part of the school curriculum.
For much of their married life, the couple surrounded themselves with art. “There [were] no empty spaces – pictures [were] even hung on the sides of bookcases and beside windows. Having a mirror or a cupboard was much more of an issue growing up – that meant a challenge to muchneeded wall space!” said the couple’s daughter, Dr Catharine Davies.
London second chance
In January 2020, the core of the collection was dispersed in a 79-lot white-glove sale at Christie’s, raising a premium-inclusive £2.26m.
The rest, comprising some 250 modestly priced prints, drawings and watercolours, was offered at Chiswick Auctions (25/12% buyer’s premium) on February 25, alongside 50 pieces of ceramics and furniture and more than 200 books.
Estimates in west London ranged from £100-2000 with many lots offered without reserve.
Eight hours of bidding from 200 private and trade buyers – many of whom apparently knew the Freer family – resulted in only seven unsold lots and a premium-inclusive total of around £325,000 (the low estimate was £146,220).
“Our clients found the story behind the collection particularly inspiring, and this garnered numerous bidders,” said head of sale Krassi Kuneva. “Attractive estimates, together with the quality of the works, the majority of which had never been seen before, ensured the success of the sale, which followed a similar pattern to Christie’s success a year ago.
“For many lots the final result was more than three times their initial estimates.”
All 22 works by Surrealist painter Eileen Agar (1899-1991) found new homes, including two acquired directly from the artist; a pencil gouache titled Spiral Head (1954) and a rare early work depicting the artist’s maid called The Italian Girl (1927).
The latter, a 21 x 11½in (55 x 29cm) pencil and oil on paper, had been promised for the forthcoming retrospective exhibition on the artist at the Whitechapel Gallery this spring and was knocked down to a UK trade buyer for £6200, over three times the top estimate.
Spiral Head, which featured on the catalogue cover, tipped over top estimate to sell to the UK trade for £2600. In an unpublished manuscript, Allen noted Agar’s interest in the subject and wrote that her “fantastic heads of mythical personae… must have had their beginnings in the heads carved in the intaglios”
Hitchens’ bright hues
A watercolour interior by Ivon Hitchens (1893-79) containing flashes of the painter’s trademark bright hues attracted multiple bids, selling to a UK private buyer for £4200 against a £700-1000 estimate
The 9 ½ x 12in (24 x 31cm) pencil and watercolour, titled Afternoon in the Sitting Room, had been purchased in 1979 from Mollie Hitchens, the artist’s wife.
There was also an early landscape drawing from 1923 of the Downs in Sussex – the county Hitchens later celebrated in his famous panoramic landscapes – that doubled hopes at £1900 and half-a-dozen nude sketches which sold for between £260 and £1500.
Multiple bids emerged for three brooding landscapes in watercolour by John Nash (1893-1977), one of Allen’s favourite artists. Norfolk Chalkpit, a 14 x 18in (35 x 45cm) pencil and watercolour gifted to the Freers by the artist, was the largest and most Nash-like vista of the trio selling for £3200 against an £800-1200 guide.
A wood engraving by Eric Ravilious (1903-42) depicting the Italian hill town of San Gimignano in Tuscany generated decent bidding before it sold online for £3000.
The little-known engraving dated to the artist’s trip to Italy in 1924 on a Royal College of Art travelling scholarship. (Indeed, the engraving was not known to JM Richards, whose The Wood Engraving of Eric Ravilious (1972) features only one wood-engraving from the scholarship journey, of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.)
The Freers bought and were gifted a number of works on paper by Mary Newcomb (1922–2008).
All characteristically rural in subject matter – the self-taught artist, natural scientist and farmer spent her days observing the natural world – the 12-lot group was led by two sheep drawings. Sheep study and Ewe came directly from the artist and sold for £4400 and £4000 respectively.