A family collection of 18 pictures were among the eye-catching works at Mallams’ (25% buyer’s premium) Country House Sale in Cheltenham.
But they were not from just any family.
The consignment came from a descendant of Captain Richard Ford (1860-1940), an officer in the rifle brigade and a noted art connoisseur. He himself was a descendant of the great comic dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) among other notables. The works came to Mallams through one of Ford’s sons.
Another son was the famous art historian and collector Sir Richard Brinsley Ford (1908-99). The former director of the Burlington Magazine for over 30 years and later chairman of the National Art Collections Fund, he both inherited and amassed an extraordinary collection. Famously it included a Michelangelo preparatory drawing that went on to sell for $12.3m (£8.1m) including premium at Christie’s New York in 2000 – a record for an Old Master drawing at the time.
Director at Mallams Robin Fisher has dealt with the family for over 20 years. Most recently the auction house sold 193 lots from the Fords’ Long Court, Randwick, residence in Gloucestershire, many of which were acquired by another ancestor, the travel writer Richard Ford (1796-1858). They included an 17th century Italian alabaster relief which sold for £9500.
The 18 picture lots offered on January 21 all sold at the auction and raised a combined hammer total of over £46,000.
A number of the online catalogue entries included photos of Captain Ford’s annotated inventory giving descriptions of the works as well as handwritten notes in the margin such as Brin (for Brinsley) and RF (for Richard), presumably indicating who had either originally acquired them or inherited them.
Three works were by Richard Wilson (1714-82), an artist regarded as a pioneer of British landscape painting. Brinsley Ford wrote the 1951 publication The Drawings of Richard Wilson which became the standard reference book on the subject.
Wilson was an old family favourite. Another ancestor of Captain Ford, the director of the East India Company Benjamin Booth (1732-1806), compiled arguably the greatest collection of his works.
Among the works at Mallams that had an established provenance all the way back to Booth were a pair of small tondos by Wilson that drew good interest.
The 6¼ x 7½in (16 x 19cm) oils on canvas were both known works and had featured in a number of exhibitions and books on Wilson.
Although his most commercial pictures are his major classical landscapes showing the influence of artists such as Joseph Vernet and Claude Lorraine, these sketch-like studies may well have been scenes of Italy where he spent a seven-year Grand Tour from 1750.
Offered separately at the auction with estimates set at £2000-3000, the first to be sold was titled Tower and Bastion by the Sea. It made £5000. The following lot was Entrance to a Town which fetched £4800. Both sold to the same buyer: an agent on behalf of a client.
While Wilson’s larger paintings can made make many times this amount, the attractive provenance of these small works encouraged bidding against their appealing estimates.
An arguably more impressive price, however, came for a drawing from the Ford collection. The artist’s drawings tend to sell for sums in the lower thousands, although one of the Villa Borghese in Rome did make £90,000 at Sotheby’s in 2010.
The example at Mallams, depicting the Ponte Vigo at Chioggia, a town on the Venetian lagoon located around 15 miles south of Venice, was estimated at £1500-2000. The 6 x 8in (15 x 20cm) pencil drawing had entered the Booth family collection at some point after selling at Sotheby’s in 1821.
Its earlier provenance was also particularly notable as it had once been owned by William Lock, a wealthy patron and amateur artist who met the artist during his Grand Tour. Wilson travelled with Lock in his carriage from Venice to Rome late in 1751 and Lock kept many of the drawings that Wilson made along the way, including this one that was presumably made at their first stopping point.
Having been exhibited at Tate Britain as part of a Richard Wilson exhibition in 1982-83, it had a good history to combine with its good subject.
It was eventually knocked down to a UK dealer for £4600. Although few drawings by Wilson have emerged at auction in the last few years, this was among the highest prices for those that have sold.
The artist most represented among the Ford lots at Mallams was Paul Sandby (1731-1809) with five watercolours.
Four depicted scenes in and around London and one was a landscape of north Wales. They all sold to five different buyers for a combined £17,200.
The pick of the group was a street scene of the village of Old Charlton in Kent where Sandby lived after he was appointed chief drawing master at nearby Woolwich Military Academy. He held the position from 1768-96. The 9 x 13¾in (23 x 35cm) watercolour was thought to show Sandby’s house on the right in the foreground.
The artist made a number of views of Old Charlton over his career and, while one is in the Royal Collection, a few have cropped up at auction over the years including a larger work on paper that made £7500 at Christie’s in December 2008.
Again, this example at Mallams benefited from its distinguished provenance, having been owned by Booth before passing down through the Ford family. Estimated at £1000-2000, it sold at £6200 to a UK buyer, believed to be a private collector.
The price was eclipsed by an Old Master painting that also overshot a £1000-2000 estimate to take £6500, the top price among the works from the Ford consignment offered at the current sale.
Catalogued as ‘Circle of Guido Reni (1575-1642)’, The head of Queen Deianira, a 22in x 18in (56 x 46cm) oil on canvas, had two collection labels on the verso, one with a coat of arms and the other impressed Ford.
At the Fords’ Long Court residence it was hung above the fireplace in the drawing room and at some point it was seemingly believed to be an original. In the Ford inventory it was described as ‘by Guido Reni’ although a later pencil inscription reads No! A copy alongside it.
While its date may have been a matter of conjecture, it had appeal for its decorative quality and provenance if nothing else, and drew bidding from a number of parties before it sold to a south of England buyer.
Overall, the Ford collection yielded a sizeable chunk of the £162,000 total from the Mallams sale. The auction house reported a selling rate of over 90% from 499 lots and over 80% of the lots that got away went to online bidders.
The ox falls
Among the separately consigned pictures, a number of lesser-value works drew strong bidding.
These included a piece of primitive folk art that brought vigorous competition against an estimate of just £40-60 and sold at £1900.
Showing a prize bull being sold to slaughter, the 15½ x 19in (39 x 48cm) oil on canvas was titled Butcher buying the great Farnley Ox, 1802 and attributed to the little-known Nathaniel Dawson (19th century British school).
It came to auction from a private vendor from the Cotswolds who was having a clear-out and it was believed to have come down through the family.
While the work carried few expectations, a strong market exists for evocative folk art that either captures a piece of social history or retains a quirky decorative appeal. This piece had both and it was also unusual to have a named animal (presumably a bull bred in the Yorkshire village of Farnley) depicted and dated.
With all this in its favour, no wonder it made a meaty price.