The portrait by Harold Knight (1874- 1961) of his fellow artist and friend Robert Morson Hughes (1873-1953) drinking a pint of ale came to the August 4-5 auction from a member of the sitter’s family with an estimate of £25,000-35,000.
With six phone lines booked, online interest plus a couple of room bidders, the lot opened at £15,000 and rose in increments of £1000 until it was knocked down at £46,000 (plus 18% buyer’s premium) to a private West Country client. A local institution, as well as three dealers, was among the underbidders.
While Knight’s brighter portraits of women tend to be more commercial and the artist’s record stands at £380,000 for a painting of the model Florence Carter-Wood that sold at Christie’s in 2016, the price in Cornwall stands within the top 10 auction results for the artist.
It has been a while since a major portrait by Knight has emerged for sale, especially one so fresh to the market. Apart from a three-month loan to Penlee House art gallery in 2019, this 3ft 4in x 4ft 2in (1.02 x 1.28m) oil on canvas had hung for over a century in Hughes’ house above the Lamorna Valley.
Painted in the shadow of war in Europe, the austere portrait was a study for Knight’s 1916 Royal Academy exhibit The Council which similarly features Hughes (Bertie to his friends) with pint in hand, walking stick and overcoat on his left arm. However, in the final version he does not directly gaze out toward the viewer as in this version, instead leaning forward facing his good friend, the artist Samuel John Lamorna Birch.
The setting for The Council was the Lamorna Wink pub where members of the artists’ colony would often debate topics of the day, no doubt including war-related subjects. Knight’s friendship with other artists in the colony became fractured in 1916 when he received his call-up papers and took the decision to become a conscientious objector.
This life-sized depiction of Hughes was described in the David Lay catalogue as “one of Harold Knight’s most powerful portraits, and very much a finished work in its own right”.
In terms of its condition, it had some fine craquelure, most noticeable to the hat, a few small spots of retouching on the sitter’s leg and a thin layer of resin varnish, but was in a generally good and stable state.
A smaller Knight picture from the same source at the auction also attracted interest against a £800-1200 estimate. It was a study for The Letter, a large and major painting from 1909 probably depicting Phyllis Gotch, the daughter of fellow artists Caroline and Thomas Cooper Gotch, wearing one of Laura Knight’s dresses. The finished painting is now in the collection of Leeds Museums & Art Galleries.
This 11¼ x 9¼in (29 x 24cm) oil on panel was in original unrestored condition and drew a battle between two internet bidders on thesaleroom.com, eventually being knocked down at £5500.
David Lay has a notable track record when it comes to Newlyn school pictures, most recently selling the large oil painting Soldiers and Sailors by the group’s ‘father figure’ Stanhope Forbes for £155,000 in February this year (see ATG No 2530).