However, his stylistically distinct early works are much rarer and, as such, are highly prized by collectors.
One of his youthful ‘railing paintings’, The Finnon Smoker, emerged at McTear’s (24% buyer’s premium) in Glasgow on May 29.
This group of works refers to the paintings made in his early 20s that were part of the protest exhibitions he and fellow art student Alexander Moffat staged outside the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy during the Edinburgh festivals from 1963-5. They nailed their pictures to the railings.
Rejecting what they regarded as the restrictive tastes and practices of these ‘Anglicised’ institutions, the impoverished duo offered the works for sale and invited the public to make donations via a piggy bank placed on a card table on the pavement outside. Most of the works Bellany sold have been lost, with only six now known, mostly in public collections.
Early works prized
The 6ft 1in x 4ft 1in (1.86 x 1.25m) signed oil on board at McTear’s had been acquired by the vendor’s late father-in-law outside the Royal Scottish Academy in 1965. The fact that it retained its original nail holes (with the nails showing through in places) helped in tracing its provenance.
Like other paintings made by the artist during this period, the subject related to Bellany’s Saturday job gutting fish in his hometown of Port Seton. The figure in the picture is almost certainly a self-portrait, although Bellany depicts himself as an older man (a practice he used with other sitters too). The title would seem to be a mis-spelling of ‘finnan’ – a method used in north-east Scotland for smoking haddock.
Commercially, this was always likely to be a valuable proposition given the date, subject and sense of rediscovery. Any pre-1969 Bellany work is relatively rare – this was the year that the artist started painting on canvas rather than board and his style moved toward his now more familiar brightly coloured experimental scenes.
Rod Shale of McTear’s pictures team said it was a work with strong appeal to the Bellany ‘purist’. Although estimated at £10,000-15,000, the saleroom was expecting it to make over £50,000 in the lead-up to the sale.
With a strong commission bid from Australia as well as two or three of the key Bellany followers already on McTear’s books actively bidding on the day, it was knocked down at £80,000.
Other than another early work from 1965 titled Fishermen in the Snow that sold for £85,000 at Sotheby’s sale of the David Bowie collection in 2016, this was the highest auction price for Bellany.
Several other later works by the artist were included in the McTear’s sale. Sold at £12,000 (estimate £3000-5000) to a different buyer was the 2ft 6in x 2ft (76 x 61cm) oil on canvas Bass Rock Fable (Homage to David Brown) – a picture that combines several favourite Bellany motifs: Bass Rock, a puffin and an anthropomorphic gannet.
David Brown was curator of the Tate who arranged acquisitions of Bellany works.
A similar composition with the same title is one of Bellany’s best-known etchings. It was consigned by a London vendor who had bought it at Christie’s in July 2003 for £2800.