Estimated at £3000-5000, it sold at £80,000 (plus 22% buyer’s premium) at Lots Road on September 5.
Mackennal, the first Australian to exhibit at the Royal Academy and the first to be elected an associate in 1909, is perhaps most famous for designing the coinage and stamps bearing the likeness of George V. However, he was also a key figure in the development of the English New School of sculpture.
A life-size version of Circe, the sorceress able to change humans into beasts, was his breakthrough work.
When shown in 1893 at the Paris Salon, this bold nude by a virtual unknown (at the time Mackennal was still working as an assistant to the Scottish sculptor William Birnie Rhind) was given a prominent position, an illustration in the catalogue and an honourable mention.
At the Royal Academy it also received interest of a different kind: for risk of offending Victorian modesty, the hanging committee insisted that the base with its swirling, entwined naked figures should be covered up. The work later made its way in 1901 to the National Gallery of Victoria (it is still there) where director Bernard Hall declared it “a genuine work of genius – without doubt young Australia’s chef d’oeuvre”.
Like other classic works of New Sculpture (those of Alfred Gilbert, Frederick Leighton and Hamo Thornycroft) the work became better known through bronze reductions.
A smaller scale Circe was shown at the Sculpture for the Home exhibition in London in 1902 – an event designed to move sculpture from the urban park and the market square into the living room. Thereafter it went through a series of different issues made by different foundries before the First World War.
The cast offered by Lots Road Auctions was signed B Mackennal and inscribed with the foundry mark Hohwiller Fondeur Paris (for Rodolphe Hohwiller). Standing 2ft 1in (62cm) high on a near contemporary marble plinth, it was cast sometime after 1906.
The bronze came from a local private vendor who was given it by her late husband. It was in his possession when they married in 1958 and has been enjoyed by the family out on display for the last 63 years.
With a modest estimate it was guaranteed plenty of admirers. It sold to a couple of Australian Victorian art collectors who were among the seven phone bidders. Following the purchase the couple told Lots Road that they “are avid fans of Bertram Mackennal and Circe will be added to our considerable collection of his bronzes”.
The highest prices for this model have been paid in Australia. Melbourne firm Deutscher and Hackett has sold two 23in (57cm) casts of Circe in recent years: one brought Aus$210,000 (£125,000) in 2017, another was sold in April this year for Aus412,500 (£229,500).