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'Marsh marigolds' by Ernest Townsend – £3400 at Mallams Abingdon.

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While Mallams Cheltenham benefited from the Ford collection on January 21, the firm’s Abingdon saleroom witnessed a dramatic competition three days before for the still-life Marsh marigolds.

The subject of the 9¾ x 13½in (24.5 x 34.5cm) signed oil on board was rare in the artist’s oeuvre. His primary output comprised portraits and views of his native city, although Derby Museum owns a similar painting of the popular yellow flowers.

As well as the lucid and vibrant composition and striking colours against the dark background, the fact that it struck a chord with more botanically minded buyers gave it appeal beyond the artist’s normal followers.

London student

Townsend was born in Derby, the son of a coach builder. After gaining an apprenticeship with a firm of architects, he went on to study in London, first at Heatherly School of Fine Art and then the Royal Academy of Arts.

He received a commission in 1915 to paint his most famous work: a portrait of Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. After returning to Derby he was a leading light of Derby Sketching Club, through which he met his patron in Alfred E Goodey.

Townsend’s prominence on the secondary market has never been huge but one of his portraits of Goodey sold for £2000 at Mellors & Kirk in April 2004, seemingly the highest price at auction before the current picture.

Mallams had pitched Marsh marigolds at just £40-60, a level that led to it being hotly contested at the January 18 auction. It sold at £3400 to a UK buyer via thesaleroom.com.