The sale of an artist’s estate or the contents from their studio can give the art market three benefits in one.
It can provide a fillip to an auction, give a useful reference point in terms of establishing a secondary market and also raise the profile of the artist concerned.
At Colchester saleroom Reeman Dansie’s (20% buyer’s premium) latest Fine Art and Antiques auction it was a case of a bit of each when the largest group of works by Gerald Spencer Pryse (1882-1956) ever offered in one go came up.
The 52 lots had been part of the artist’s estate and were consigned by his daughter, Tessa Spencer Pryse, herself an accomplished painter with a keen following. She lives locally to Reeman Dansie and has sold works with the Essex firm before.
The auction house has staged a number of well-received sales of single-artist collections over the years, including a large group of works by Peter Coker (1926-2004) in 2016 and the studio sale of Peter Collins (1923-2001) in 2017. So it was a logical choice to disperse the works that Tessa, now 82, had kept together for well over half a century.
Gerald Spencer Pryse worked in many different media – prints, watercolours and drawings as well as producing a series of large oil paintings – but he is probably best remembered as a lithographer.
Prints first brought him to prominence during the First World War when, working as an army despatch rider with the Belgian forces, he recorded the scenes he witnessed in Flanders from 1914 onwards.
He was awarded the Military Cross at Passchendaele in 1917 and even received the patronage of the Queen of Belgium who supplied him with some huge lithographic stones and a large Mercedes.
After the war he worked as a poster designer for the British Red Cross, the Labour Party and the London Underground among others but also travelled to Morocco and elsewhere in Africa producing views of the local scenery and events.
In 1924 he created a large series of images for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, working alongside Frank Brangwyn to produce monumental posters designed to convey the marvels of the empire.
While his evocative First World War work would probably be highly valuable were it ever to appear on the market, precious little ever becomes available.
Much of it was destroyed during the 1918 German Offensive, and even more of his work was lost when the Spencer Pryse house was bombed in the Second World War. Some examples, however, can now be found in the collections of Tate Britain and the British Museum.
This may explain why he has never had much of a presence at auction, with most works selling for three rather than four figures.
The selection of works in Colchester was later in date (although only a few carried inscriptions identifying when they were painted) but they showed his versatility in a range of different styles and subjects. On offer were portraits, still-lifes, country scenes, ceremonial subjects and views of Morocco.
At the auction on August 9-10, the works met a good reaction, with 50 of the 52 lots selling for a £22,785 hammer total. With private and trade interest emerging, three of the works achieved sums in the top 10 auction prices for the artist and 12 came within the top 30 (source: Artprice).
Busy pictures seemed to draw the most competition and provided some of the highest prices.
These included a 2ft x 2ft 4in (61 x 71cm) oil on canvas which showed a crowd of spectators and two greyhounds straining at the leash. Spencer Pryse owned a pair of greyhounds named Hammer and Tongs with his friend the poet Julian Grenville, although it was unclear if these were the two dogs depicted here.
The scene was initially thought to relate to greyhound racing but before the sale it was thought that coursing was more likely. Compositions with crowds of figures appear to hold extra appeal for followers of Spencer Pryse, perhaps as they best demonstrate the assured painterly style derived from his work as a lithographer.
Indeed, the two highest auction prices ever recorded for the artist are for A Day at the Races that made £8000 at Christie’s back in 1995 and Derby Day that fetched £3437 including premium at Bonhams in 2016, both of which depicted multiple figures.
This coursing scene in Colchester was estimated at £300-500 but drew strong commission interest as well as bidding on the day and was knocked down at £2200 to a UK dealer who bought a number of top lots from the collection.
The price represented the fourth highest for the artist at auction so far.
Another work bringing lively competition was Festivities, Buckingham Palace, another busy picture which, although a 2ft 1in x 2ft 5in (64 x 74cm) oil on canvas, clearly showed the influence of his accomplished poster designs on his other painted work. Estimated at £400-600, it took £1300.
Five of the works offered were colourful views of Tangiers which all sold either on top estimate or above, in some cases well over the predicted levels.
In 1925 Spencer Pryse travelled and worked extensively in Morocco where his brother was based, before then touring west Africa by car and river steamer, recording scenes on the Gold Coast and Nigeria for The Empire Marketing Board. In 1930 he was commissioned for further works by the Gold Coast Government.
Among the strong performers in Colchester was Bustling figural scene, Tangiers, a 16¼ x 20½in (41 x 52cm) oil on canvas pitched at £100-150. It sold at £1000, again to the same dealer.
A slightly larger view of figures before an extensive view of Tangiers made £840 against a £300-500 estimate.
Another set of works in demand was a group of flower paintings depicting different species including rhododendrons, lupins and zinnias.
The lot drawing most attention, however, was a painting of hollyhocks, a signed oil on canvas which measured 2ft 11in x 2ft 4in (90 x 70cm). Estimated at £400-600, its bright and burgeoning composition clearly found favour and it was knocked down at £1600 to the abovementioned dealer.
Director and auctioneer at Reeman Dansie Jonathan Benson told ATG that he was greatly encouraged by the results and thought it bodes well for another group of lots from the family consignment, including a group of large lithographs, which will be offered in the spring.