The Descent from the Cross by Lionel Ellis – £3400 at Ewbank’s.

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Sometimes a painter can have a good following among galleries and collectors but, because precious little material has emerged at auction, a proper benchmark on the secondary market has yet to be established – making potential vendors reluctant to come forward.

A few recent events, though, have shown how works coming directly from an artist’s studio can quickly create a wider auction presence for an artist. This is done through a significant body of work being sold all in one go and garnering extra attention in the process.

Remaining works

One such sale was held at Ewbank’s (25% buyer’s premium) of Surrey on September 16 when the remaining works from the studio of Lionel Ellis (1903-88) were on offer.

The 98 previously unseen works came to auction from the estate of Ellis’ long-term partner, fellow artist Barbara Shaw, who died recently.

Indeed, only around 30-50 works by the artist had ever emerged at auction before which meant the current selection represented by far the most significant group that has appeared and tested the depth of demand to a much greater extent than ever before.

In the end the market proved capable of absorbing these works at the same time, with all of the lots selling for a £50,000 total and 34 different clients making a purchase – a notable spread of buyers by any measure.

Born in Plymouth, Ellis was a versatile artist who worked as a painter, wood engraver, modeller and teacher. He specialised in portraits and still-lifes as well as equine paintings, displaying a particular aptitude for capturing horses being put through their paces on the gallops.

As a young man he studied at Plymouth School of Art and the Royal College of Art before gaining a travel scholarship that took him to the Atelier Colarossi in Paris and then Italy. He taught painting at Wimbledon School of Art (later Wimbledon College of Arts) for more than 20 years but, after retiring in 1968, he led a rather reclusive life at Headley in Surrey. Over his career Ellis exhibited at the Royal Academy, New English Art Club and extensively at Redfern Gallery, while the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum and several provincial galleries now hold examples his work.

Despite the standing he achieved in his lifetime, since his death 33 years ago commercially he has gone somewhat under the radar.

Much-needed exposure

The current sale, however, gave him some much-needed exposure once again. The mix of subjects at Ewbank’s, which ranged from equine paintings to religious studies, gave an overview of the kind of works he produced and were generally well received. In fact, the sale achieved eight of the top 10 auction prices for the artist so far (source: Artprice by Artmarket).

Best-seller from the collection was The Descent from the Cross, a 3ft 10in x 2ft 9in (1.17m x 85cm) oil on canvas that had a label on the back for the Central Institute of Art and Design Religious Art Competition. Classical and religious subjects were a notable feature of the consignment and a number of these pictures, including this one, drew strong interest.

Estimated at £400-600, it was taken well above predictions and was knocked down via at £3400 to a dealer from the Home Counties. The only higher price recorded at auction for Ellis is a 1951 still-life that made £4200 at Phillips in March 1988.


Two Seated Nudes by Lionel Ellis – £2800 at Ewbank’s.

Also sparking a contest against a lowly pitch was Two Seated Nudes, an 2ft 7in x 2ft 2in (80 x 67cm) oil on board offered with a £200-300 guide. It sold at £2800 to a trade buyer from the Midlands and was one of a number of nude studies bringing interest. Others included a halflength nude portrait that overshot a £150-250 pitch and took £1900, while classical scene with nudes and horses in a coastal landscape made £1600 against a £300-400 estimate.


Three Horses Standing Beneath A Tree by Lionel Ellis – £1800 at Ewbank's.

While some equine pictures had slightly higher expectations, bidding for them generally fell short of the the £1000 threshold. One that did draw decent interest, however, was a 2ft 2in x 2ft 11in (65 x 90cm) signed oil on canvas titled Three Horses Standing Beneath A Tree.

Estimated at £400-600, it sold online at £1800 to the same Home Counties trade buyer who purchased the religious scene mentioned above. It was the highest price at auction so far for an Ellis horse painting.