The large group of paintings, drawings and prints was consigned by an Oxford lady whose father was an old friend of the artist and inherited the contents of his home and studio in Ashmansworth, Hampshire. Her father had been the long-time secretary of the IIkeston Arts Club in Derbyshire where Bissill had first showed his evocative scenes of toiling miners as a young man.
IIkeston is located near the village of Langley Mill where Bissill grew up and where his father worked as a railway brakesman. Bissill himself became a miner aged 13.
“The paintings have not been seen since they were taken from George Bissill’s studio in 1983,” said the vendor, Kate Pattinson.
“My father cleared out the entire body of his work – a much larger collection than is offered here – and stored it in attics and cupboards and under beds.”
After her parents died Pattinson took it on herself to restore and frame many of the pictures and write a biography of the artist.
She believes Bissill has been unfairly overlooked and hopes to “restore the reputation of an artist” who produced what she described as “powerful, authentic and experimental pictures, and whose contribution to the formal recognition of mining art and artists should not be forgotten”.
With this in mind, a series of exhibitions of the collection was due to be held last year but unfortunately some events had to be cancelled because of Covid. One viewing in Oxford and another in Ilkeston (at the Erewash Museum) did eventually take place.
Mallams decided to split the works into three parts based on distinct periods of the artist’s career, with the first tranche of 28 lots appearing at the Modern art and design sale on December 8-9.
This group featured mostly mining and industrial scenes, including oils, watercolours and pen and ink studies conveying the straining muscles of the coal miners with their bodies contorting as they reach into confined spaces – the kind of works that initially made Bissill’s name.
Indeed, he had received some high acclaim after exhibiting a group of such pictures at Redfern Gallery in London in the mid-1920s. At around the same time he also gained commissions to design posters for railway lines, such as the LNER.
However, after moving to Paris and then Hampshire where he focused on different types of work such as engravings, landscapes and even furniture design, Bissill seems to have fallen out of the limelight.
Today his presence on the market is not as prominent as fellow pitman painter Norman Cornish, for example. Works do appear occasionally at auction, however, and his record stands at £2625 for a figurative sketch titled The Student (1926) that sold at Chiswick Auctions in July 2020.
Overall, the group in Oxford met with a decent response and gave encouragement to the market, although perhaps without completely transforming it. All of the lots sold for a combined £19,400, with 12 separate buyers making a purchase according to the auction house. These included a keen group of private buyers as well as a museum trust.
Mallams’ specialist in charge of the sale Max Fisher said that the ink and grey wash works were most in demand. One of these dating most likely from the 1920s led the selection on offer here.
Miners Hauling Boulders was a pen, ink, and grey wash measuring 15 x 22½in (38 x 57cm).
A signed example, it was one of the largest pictures on offer and seemed to best embody the view Bissill later expressed in an interview when he commented: “A man who is artistically minded can find material with which to work wherever he might be, and the mine is full of material for the artist. He can study, for instance, the anatomy of the giant hewers, the seams of coal and the shadows cast by the miners’ lamps.”
Estimated at £800-1200, it drew a notable competition and was knocked down online for £2400 to a private buyer. It was the thirdhighest price ever recorded for the artist at auction (source: Artprice).
Also selling to a private buyer was a smaller study in the same medium titled A Fall of Bind. Its style was very much in keeping with the images he produced for posters such as Britain’s Coal, 40 Per Cent Raised from Collieries Served by LNER from c.1925 which was one of his best-known designs.
Here the estimate was £600-800 and it sold for £1300.
Two of the lots that headed to the museum were also trademark works. Miner with Hammer was one of only a few single-figure studies on offer and one of five oils on canvas in the group. Measuring 18 x 13¾in (46 x 35cm), it was estimated at £1000- 1500 but tipped over predictions when it was knocked down at £1600.
Miners Repairing Wooden Supports, a 15 x 22½in (38 x 57cm) pen, ink, and grey wash was one of the pictures depicting figures hard at work putting pit props in place. Against the same estimate, the museum secured it at £1300.
With more to come from the consignment, Mallams will be holding sales this year focusing firstly on Bissill’s pictures of Paris and London before then offering pictures from the later part of his career, predominantly landscapes.