Modern and Contemporary prints appeal on many levels.
For some buyers it is about visual qualities and wall power. For others it about the close connection to an artist – the subject matter, the way of working or the thought process.
Others will focus primarily on technical aspects – the minutiae of printmaking methods from woodcuts and etchings to stencils and screenprints – and the sometimes vexing question of states and proofs.
As they are typically produced in multiples, prints are well suited to online transactions: purchasing decisions can be made based on a few key pieces of information and some knowledge of current prices. Indeed, the greater levels of internet bidding during the various lockdowns over the last year has meant prints are one of the areas that, to some extent, has witnessed an uplift in values – especially for the most desirable material.
Among the recent auctions demonstrating the range of the Modern prints sector was Sworders’ (25% buyer’s premium) sale of Modern British & 20th Century art on April 20.
The 136 prints on offer included both financial highlights and more affordable options. A good example of both at the Essex saleroom came among the 12 Edward Bawden (1903-89) prints. At the centre of the Great Bardfield artists’ group for almost 40 years, he was a versatile printmaker who made lithographs, linocuts, stencils and poster designs.
Impressions which were made with the artist’s direct involvement are significantly more desirable than those printed towards the end of his life. Here, at the lower end of the Bawden prints market, were two colour lithographs from 1985 based on earlier watercolours created by the artist in the 1940s.
One was Dunkirk, a 22in x 2ft 6in (55 x 76cm) print commissioned by the Hurtwood Press for an unrealised book Edward Bawden: War Artist. The original watercolour was made by Bawden when, as an Official War Artist, he was evacuated from Dunkirk with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. The print here sold on low estimate at £400.
A bid of £300 was required to secure British Empire Map, one of the prints commissioned by the Wolfsonian Collection in Miami in 1985 as a gift to approximately 400 guests at the opening of its Style of Empire – 1877-1947 exhibition.
Further up the spectrum was a copy of one of Bawden’s best-known prints issued mid-career. The signed linocut from 1965 showing Floral Hall in Covent Garden measures 18in x 2ft (46 x 61cm) and was printed in an edition of 75. It would be the artist’s only linocut of this subject: his series of Six London Markets made two years later were prepared as linocuts but later transferred to plates and printed as offset lithographs instead.
Estimated at £1000-1500, it sold to a London private buyer at £2200 – a sum that exceeded the £1450 fetched by another copy sold in the same rooms in January 2014. Indeed, without some water damage to the edges it may well have equalled the £3000 achieved by a copy at Lyon & Turnbull in January 2020.
A London view by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889- 1946) achieved £9000. Waterloo Bridge from a Savoy Window, an 11 x 14in (28 x 35cm) signed drypoint etching from 1924-26, is a familiar image to Nevinson collectors.
It was based on an oil on canvas showing smoking chimneys across London’s Embankment that the artist first exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London in March 1924. The brownish ink tones are typical of the artist’s 1920s prints.
The price, which was within estimate, was a good one. Other than a copy that made £9500 at Christie’s in March 2019, this was the highest price for Waterloo Bridge in the last seven years (source: Artprice by Artmarket). It sold to a London private buyer.
Riley’s signature style
Three trademark Op Art screenprints by Bridget Riley (b.1931) also drew good competition, selling to three different bidders. They included two pieces made in 1965 not long after Riley had arrived at her signature black and white style. Both are from the Fragments series – seven works printed on a clear Perspex sheet with brilliant white backgrounds that were published by the Robert Fraser Gallery in editions of 75. Embodying the artist’s fluid style and use of modern materials, these works are highly sought after.
First up, Fragment 3 was estimated at £15,000-20,000 and took £24,500, selling to a private bidder in The Netherlands. Fragment 5 was slightly larger at 2ft x 2ft 7in (60 x 79cm) but offered with the same guide. Selling at £30,000 to the London trade, it made the highest price at auction for the edition.
Riley began further experiments in colour in 1967, the year in which she produced her first stripe painting. The third Riley print was a signed screenprint from 1972 titled Coloured Greys 1. From an edition of 125, it surpassed a £3000-5000 estimate , selling at £12,500 to a private buyer from Surrey on thesaleroom.com.
Another feature of the Modern prints market is the way that new names or previously overlooked artists continue to emerge on the market. One artist who has gained much more attention in the last few years is Eileen Lucy ‘Tirzah’ Garwood (1908-51), wife of the better known Eric Ravilious.
She shot to prominence in May 2017 when a painting made £24,000 at Cheffins’ sale of works from the collection of Cambridge County Council. Since then her works, including the distinctive prints, have gained increasing recognition in their own right.
Previously her woodcuts would make under £500 at auction but one made a record £2100 at Sworders in June last year. This price was exceeded at the current sale when the woodcut Crocodile dramatically overshot a £200-300 estimate to bring £3600. From an edition of 500, the diminutive but finely detailed 6½ x 5in (17 x 13cm) impression was knocked down to the same London buyer who purchased the Nevinson print (reported above).
Harwood’s work is rare but the auction house will no doubt be hoping that these buoyant price levels will encourage further consignments.
Amy Scanlon, Head of Modern & Contemporary Art at Sworders said: “There has been a lockdown lustre for prints!
“With all of us in lockdown, our focus has been on our surroundings and prints are an easy way to brighten up an interior with something to suit all ages and pockets.
“Our star lots at our recent sale, two Fragments by Bridget Riley have the bold design that creates impact. At £39,000 this may not suit every one’s budget, but the beauty of the print market is that clients are also able to buy works by recognisable names for affordable prices – for just £300 hammer you could secure a work by Augustus John or Keith Haring.
“I was thrilled we were able to open again and have a live viewing for our latest sale and it was great to see the saleroom buzzing again, but many bidders still chose to rely on images and condition reports. Our ‘new normal’ includes a change in how people purchase art, and they seem far more confident to buy prints without seeing them themselves.
“This is fantastic for us as it opens the market up worldwide, an example being our Andy Warhol After the Party (a screenprint that made £11,000) which was sold to an American buyer.
“Provenance is also key. Our fantastic set of eight Nursery Rhyme prints by Paula Rego far exceeded the estimates (ranging in price from £1300-3800), which was due in part to the interest in their previous owner – Germaine Greer.”