The art of Leonard Squirrell (1893- 1979) is closely associated with East Anglia and, with the bulk of his oeuvre comprising views of Suffolk and Norfolk, he naturally has a strong following in the region.
So how would the market react to a group of four non-typical London scenes that emerged at an auction this summer at Gloucestershire saleroom Chorley’s (22.5% buyer’s premium)?
As it happens, rather well.
They were all large-scale watercolours of famous landmarks which, besides their extreme rarity, also had good condition and market freshness in their favour.
Images of London by Squirrell are certainly not unheard of – he produced a number of prints, including those for the Calendarium Londinense almanack series showing views of the capital.
However, original works, especially on this scale and with this level of detail, are unheard of on the market.
The pictures came to auction from a client in north Herefordshire who had kept them in her reception rooms and was selling in order to reorganise her property.
Having been purchased at auction in the late 1960s, they had originally been kept at her late husband’s offices in London and had come to the Herefordshire residence on his retirement.
Keenly estimated, they all sold for a combined £16,900 against a joint pitch of £5200-7500. Three of the lots achieved prices that stand within the artist’s top four prices at auction (source: Artprice). The successful purchasers were all UK private buyers, with one client taking two and the other two going to separate parties.
The most striking of the four works was offered first at the sale in Cheltenham on July 19-20. Leaving aside its subject matter, the monumental panorama showing St Paul’s Cathedral, Blackfriars Bridge and shipping on the Thames was seemingly the most extensive cityscape known to have been made by Squirrell.
Measuring 2ft x 7ft 9in (62cm x 2.35m), it was executed on two sheets of paper. Incidentally, you would be hard pressed to find a watercolour of this size anywhere, although some larger Indian panoramas are known.
It was signed and dated 1957 and was in good original condition with the middle join hardly visible at the centre.
As with the other three works, this picture represented an exciting opportunity for followers of the artist and one that is unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Even though you would need some serious wall space to accommodate it, the work also commanded an appeal outside the usual run of Squirrell buyers and this probably helped push the price even higher.
Estimated at £1000-1500, it was eventually knocked down at £5500 – a sum that broke the previous record for the artist at auction held by a painting of Suffolk’s Framlingham Castle that made £4200 at Holloway’s of Banbury in 2018.
In a similar vein, a 2ft x 6ft 6in (62cm x 1.97m) watercolour showing a Thameside view of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, also signed and dated 1957, drew strong competition against the same estimate. Again benefiting from being in bright and original condition, as well as the presence of the tug, barges and a couple of boatmen giving it a sense of being a period piece, it sold well above its £1000-1500 estimate at £4000.
The other two pictures in the group were not in such a wide format but they were a good size.
An elegant view of Tower Bridge, a signed watercolour measuring 2ft x 3ft 8in (62cm x 1.13m), overshot a £1200-1500 estimate and sold online at £4200 – the second-highest price for Squirrell at auction and behind only the St Paul’s panorama mentioned above.
A view of the Tower of London (pictured above, top) had a higher estimate of £2000-3000 and sold at £3200. Unlike the other works, this watercolour measured 3ft 3in (98cm) square, although it was also executed on two sheets of paper joined vertically.
While this was the lowest priced of the four works in Cheltenham, it was still within the top 10 auction results for Squirrell.
The performance of the group as a whole will give have given encouragement to supporters of the artist who was a founder member of the Ipswich Art Club. It also belied the general rule that it is harder to generate interest in British watercolours in the current market.