With female artists receiving greater recognition over the past few years, auction houses have increasingly been cottoning onto the commercial potential of what could be described as the beginnings of a rebalancing of the art market.
In recent times this has been given formal acknowledgement with a number of salerooms now staging dedicated auctions of works by women only.
In May Sotheby’s held its inaugural (Women) Artists auction which was a mixed-category sale spanning 400 years of art history.
Christie’s Women in Art sale then took place in Paris in June, also offering a wide range of material from Old Masters to Contemporary art.
And now Bonhams (27.5/25/20/14.5% buyer’s premium) has got in on the act by launching a sale of works by Modern British female artists.
Its September 29 event was rather more focused than those of the other auction houses which, at times, seemed to bracket together artists with little in common other than their gender.
Blazing a trail
The Bonhams version was titled Blazing a Trail: Modern British Women. While it achieved some notable prices for big names like Laura Knight and Bridget Riley, although arguably such works would have made high prices in whatever auction they appeared.
Perhaps the more notable feature of the sale, therefore, was the platform given to some slightly less well-known names that have been on the rise commercially in the last year or two.
Bonhams director of Modern British and Irish art Christopher Dawson said: “It was very encouraging to see spirited bidding and high prices for pieces by lesserknown British women artists.
“One of our aims with this auction was to provide an opportunity for talented, but perhaps overlooked, women artists to take their place alongside more established names, and in that I think we have been successful.”
When asked if having a women-only auction yielded any extra consignments, Dawson said that people viewed it as a “good opportunity and context to offer works that may otherwise have not immediately come for sale”.
He also pointed out that the sale did indeed offer works by artists “whom we seldom see but know to be of interest and importance”.
In this regard, the sale may well have laid some important groundwork by creating additional attention on ‘new’ names and showing how they fit into the various branches of the Mod Brit family tree.
One such artist is Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939), a painter who was well connected with key movements and figures in early 20th century British art but whose works, until this year, had only once made £10,000 or more at auction.
Born in Kent, she studied at the Slade from 1902-03 and later at the Académie de la Palette in Paris before returning to London and becoming a member of Wyndham Lewis’s Rebel Art Centre. She signed the Vorticist manifesto published in the first issue of Blast in 1914 – one of only two female members of the group to do so (the other being her friend Helen Saunders).
While often described as a radical feminist (although reports that she stripped naked in Oxford Street in 1919 may be apocryphal), she kept her painting going alongside her political activities and eventually held her first solo exhibition in 1925 at the Mayor Gallery.
During this period she became associated with the London Group and the Seven and Five Society but her suicide in September 1939 on the eve the Second World War meant there was no opportunity to mount a retrospective, something which may explain in part why she fell into somewhat obscurity for so long.
Sandwiched between her early Vorticist pictures and her late 1930s abstracts are the richly textured portraits she made of women in her circle in the 1920s.
Although they were among her most recognised works, few have ever been sold at auction; which meant the 2ft 1in x 18½in (62 x 47cm) oil and crayon on board at Bonhams was something of a rarity.
The sitter, Ann Ody, was a friend of the artist who was married to Robin Ody, Dismorr’s solicitor and friend who also later acted as the executor of her estate. With more subtle tones than her brightly coloured earlier works, the painting was described in the catalogue as “a striking example of her ability as an artist, rarely available at auction”.
Consigned by a private UK vendor, the £6000-8000 estimate reflected the growth in prices for Dismorr seen across 2021 with Bonhams itself having sold two works back in April for £10,000 and £13,000 respectively – the latter price being an auction record. Here the bar was raised again as the lot was carried to £15,000 at which point it was knocked down to a UK dealer on the phone.
The subject, a depiction of a member of the intellectual and creative circles in which she moved, clearly helped. Indeed, a drawing of Robin Ody by the artist had generated a fervent competition against a £200-300 pitch at Sworders back in April, selling at £1350.
When asked if works in this sale generated more interest than may have been the case if they appeared in a ‘normal’ Modern British art sale, Dawson said: “I think the focused nature of the sale captured people’s attention and possibly led to additional consideration for some of the artists and it helped to bring them together and tell a story of the 20th- 21st century in different movements.”
Another name emerging more on the market over the past few years is Nina Hamnett (1890-1956), whose work was represented at the Bonhams sale by an appealing rooftop scene.
Known for her friendships with the figures such as Henri Gaudier- Brzeska, Roger Fry, Jean Cocteau and Amadeo Modigliani, her heavy drinking and bisexual relationships earned her the informal title of ‘The Queen of Bohemia’.
While she published a bestselling auto-biographical account of her life and died tragically when she fell out of her apartment window after a bout of drinking, her colourful life has perhaps been a greater source of fascination to Mod Brit followers over the years than her actual art.
Despite this, her work was exhibited widely during the earlier part of her career at both the Royal Academy in London and the Salon d’Automne in Paris, although only around 60 works have sold at auction in the last 30-40 years.
But with the market now reassessing artists such as Hamnett, a notable record came at Sotheby’s in March 2020 when a rare portrait of a reclining man from c.1918 outstripped a £2500-3500 estimate and was knocked down for a record £17,000.
The smaller 21 x 14½in (53 x 37cm) signed oil on canvas at Bonhams had remained with Frank Griffith, an artist friend whom she met in Paris, and came to auction from a descendant. The £2500-3500 estimate made it highly appealing given the greater attention being received by the artist lately and it sold at £13,000, the joint second-highest price for Hamnett at auction (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
Also bringing strenuous competition, a Surrealist picture by Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88) overshot a £2000-3000 estimate and sold to a UK private buyer bidding online at a record £30,000. The 2ft 5in x 2ft (73 x 60cm) oil on canvas from 1949 was titled Battle Fury of Cuchullin, a reference to an Irish Celtic hero who became possessed by a fury which made him unbeatable.
Adding to the fact that this was a striking composition being offered at a favourable moment when both Surrealism and women’s roles in such movements are gaining more attention, it also had a favourable provenance, having been given by the artist to Derek Stanford, a poet and essayist who was a close friend, and was consigned by a descendant.
Works such as these helped the sale to a £1.59m total (including premium) with 50 of the 63 lots selling (81%).
The figures were bolstered by some big names, especially Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970), whose Sennen Cove, Cornwall, a signed 20in x 2ft (51 x 61cm) oil on canvas, led the sale by some distance when it overshot a £60,000-80,000 estimate and was knocked down at £400,000 to a UK dealer.
Paintings from the early 1920s depicting the Cornish coastline are highly commercial and this example was probably made during one of Laura and Harold Knight’s annual summer retreats to west Cornwall where they painted views of Sennen, Lamorna and Mousehole in particular. A view of the same cove from 1922 but from a higher vantage point can be found in the collection of Birmingham Museums Trust.
“Sennen Cove is an exceptional painting by an acknowledged master, and I am not surprised that it created such demand”, said Dawson. The price was the fourth highest for the artist at auction.
Such performances of both women artists like Knight – who are already major figures in the Mod Brit sector – as well as some emerging names means it would be no surprise if Bonhams repeated the exercise of staging a gender-specific sale.
Dawson said: “I think the success of the auction means that we have excellent foundations to build from and we are committed to establishing a strong presence for female artists in our sales.”