Demonstrating how one good thing can lead to another in the art market, a collection of wildlife art came to Halls (20% buyer’s premium) of Shrewsbury on the back of a previous sale two years ago.
The collection of 171 lots was consigned by a vendor described by the auction house as “a private individual and passionate wildlife art collector who lovingly built up their collection over the last 30 years”.
Artists included figures such as Terence Lambert (b.1951) and Eric Arthur Roberts Ennion (1900-81) but of particular note was the large group of works by Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe (1901-79).
Halls had sold a smaller Tunnicliffe collection in 2019 from a different source and the vendor here had borne the Shropshire saleroom in mind ever since.
Its client had amassed their collection primarily from galleries but had also bought at auctions in the UK and US and even acquired a few of the rarer pieces directly from private collections, including the artist’s family.
The group represented a wide range of material and featured watercolours, preparatory drawings, etchings, woodblock prints and book illustrations, thereby demonstrating Tunnicliffe’s range versatility in different mediums.
Astonishingly, none of the works had ever been hung on the vendor’s walls. Instead, after being purchased they had been reframed with high-quality glass, wrapped up and then placed in a purpose-built wardrobe. Halls’ Modern & Contemporary Art specialist Abigail Molenaar described the vendor’s collecting habit as mix between a love affair and an obsession. “If they saw a Tunnicliffe come up, they just had to have it,” she said.
She added that the vendor had sought out rare examples and formed “a stunning collection representing, in my view, the best of Tunnicliffe”.
The vendor had loaned works to several exhibitions of wildlife art including those at the Oriel Môn museum in Anglesey which has a gallery dedicated to the artist (who had lived at nearby Malltraeth from 1947 until his death). The vendor decided in the summer that the time had come to sell the collection in its entirety and it was thought best to spread the works across a number of sales.
The bulk appeared at Halls’ sale on September 15, achieving a hammer total of £50,950 with over three quarters of the amount raised coming from the 44 Tunnicliffe lots, of which 41 sold.
While other works sold at Halls’ September 1 and October 6 sales, further items from the collection will be offered at the December 8 auction in Shrewsbury including more prints by the artist.
Molenaar said they had a packed room on September 15 and that 21 different bidders competed for the Tunnicliffe lots – a good sign of the depth of interest that remains for the artist. The winning bids were all placed by UK buyers; the majority from Wales or from the London area.
The Macclesfield-born artist, who was the son of a tenant farmer began his career as an etcher, producing country scenes based on what he saw in his daily life. But after demand for etchings fell in the wake of the Wall Street Crash he turned his attention to bird and wildlife paintings. Later he became widely known for his illustrations for Ladybird Books as well as for the RSPB magazines and publications.
The most sought-after lots at Halls were Tunnicliffe’s larger watercolours showing birds or other animals in movement or engaging in some way with their landscape. In contrast to ‘static’ scientific studies, these are the kind of pictures for which the artist is most recognised and followers believe they capture the true essence or ‘wildness’ of the subjects.
Top of the tree here was a 19in x 2ft 3in (49 x 68cm) signed watercolour titled Lochinver Gulls. It had a number of factors in its favour: its size, its condition, the attractive subject of seabirds in a boat by the fishing port on the west coast of Scotland and the fact that it was the artist’s submission to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1973. It was also one of the works more recently loaned by the vendor to the exhibition at Oriel Môn in 2019-20.
Estimated at £2000-3000, it was knocked down at £6000 to a Tunnicliffe collector in the north of England. The price was towards the upper end of prices for the artist. While large numbers of works have appeared at auction over the years due to Tunnicliffe’s prolific output, this was the fifth highest outside London and the 16th highest overall (source: Artprice by Artmarket).
Another Royal Academy exhibit, this time from the 1961 Summer Exhibition, was New Tenants, Guillemots, a 19 x 23¼in (48 x 59cm) watercolour which again had featured in the recent Oriel Môn show. Here the estimate was set at £2000-4000 and, after good competition, it sold at £5500, this time going to a private London buyer via thesaleroom.com.
Selling online on top estimate at £4000 was a 14¼ x 19¼in (36 x 49cm) watercolour of a peregrine falcon with an ensnared grouse. It was sold with a two-page handwritten letter from the artist to the original buyer of the painting, dated October 1973.
Unlike other ornithological painters, depictions of birds of prey and game birds by Tunnicliffe are not hugely more commercial than other subjects, which meant this work made a good sum for this kind of picture. It sold to a private buyer in Wales.