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'Castagnola' by Winifred Nicholson, a work which also featured a painting by her daughter Kate Nicholson on the back – £36,000 at Mallams.

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Since the easing of Covid-19 restrictions came into effect in April, some lively auction action has been witnessed around the country.

Even though some auctioneers are maintaining ‘behind closed doors’ sales for the time being, most have now welcomed bidders back into the room and have restarted live viewings.

With many salerooms now offloading consignments they were holding back during the national lockdowns in England, here we look at some of the picture highlights sold in London and the regions over the last two months.

Nicholson landscape

The standout lot at Mallams’ (25% buyer’s premium) Design and Modern Art sale in Oxford on May 26-27 was a Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) oil on board titled Castagnola.

Measuring 23¼ x 2ft 5in (59 x 74cm), the view of the village on the northern shore of Lake Lugano in Switzerland was painted in c.1923 and was one of her ‘fast and furious’ artistic experiments created during this period (as described by her husband Ben Nicholson).

The location was where the couple spent the first three winters of their married life. This picture, with its muted palette and bare trees standing in a segmented landscape, had compositional and tonal similarities to an oil on board by her husband, also from 1923, which had the same title – a work now in the National Galleries of Scotland.

As a bonus, on the back of the painting was another work by the couple’s daughter Kate Nicholson (1929-2019), a Cumberland landscape from c.1950. Although Winifred often painted on the reverse of pictures due to a shortage of materials, it was rare for her daughter to have reused her mother’s earlier materials in this way, although not unknown.

The work came to auction from a private Cornish collection and, estimated at £15,000-25,000, it attracted good competition before it was knocked down to a phone bidder at £36,000. The price was a notable sum for a Winifred Nicholson that was neither one of her more familiar still-lifes nor harbour scenes.

Cultural support

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'Flowers on a window sill' by Winifred Nicholson – £20,000 at Olympia Auctions.

Another work by Winifred Nicholson leading a recent sale was Flowers on a window sill which appeared at Olympia Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on May 6.

The auction of British & Continental Pictures, Prints and Sculpture was the first of three sales that the firm is staging this summer with proceeds from various lots going to support three cultural institutions: The Wallace Collection, Westminster Abbey and The Grange Festival.

Vendors for the sale included some famous names such as Jools Holland and Sir Paul Ruddock but also a ream of dealers in different areas of the art and antiques trade including Sam Fogg, Rafael Valls, Runjeet Singh and Koopman Rare Art.

The works offered with a charitable element tended to generate good interest and they accounted for half of the top-10 lots.

Flowers on a window sill came from a private vendor in Devon who had been given the painting by her mother-in-law who had worked at Kettles Yard, Cambridge, and is thought to have bought the picture from an exhibition there in the 1970s or 80s. It was being sold with a percentage of the proceeds going to The Grange Festival.

The 23¾in (60cm) square oil on canvas laid on board dated from 1978. A work produced at the tail end of Nicholson’s long career, it had some familiar themes including the subject matter of a jug or pot of flowers on a windowsill.

While her earlier works can make more, especially those with more visible backgrounds showing indoor and outdoor elements juxtaposed or complementing each other, this picture sold at the lower end of its £20,000-30,000 estimate to a private British collector.

Bratby's Venice

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'View of a Venetian Canal' by John Bratby – £2400 at Olympia Auctions.

Another Modern British work at the sale was a colourful Venetian scene by John Bratby (1928-92). A late work by the artist, it was created while he travelled extensively in Europe depicting the cities he visited using brightly coloured impasto.

While in contrast to his influential ‘kitchen sink’ realist scenes which he began painting in the late 1950s and are now commercially more valuable, this 4ft x 2ft in (1.22m x 64cm) signed oil on canvas came with a £2000-3000 estimate and sold at £2400 to a UK private buyer.

The work had sold for £1400 when it last appeared at auction at Bonhams Oxford in May 2014, so it made a decent return.