If you have never heard of the artist Vivien Gribble (1888-1932), do not worry - you are probably not alone.
Working primarily as a wood engraver and book illustrator, she died of cancer aged 44 and faded into obscurity over the years. But, in her day, the delicate black line wood engravings in which she specialised were highly fashionable and she received some notable commissions.
These included a set of single-page illustrations for a 1923 edition of John Keats’ Odes (published by Duckworth & Co) and the 41 plates published in MacMillan’s 1926 edition of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Books with her illustrations come up for sale occasionally. A copy of the latter publication, for example, took £2800 at Bonhams in March 2020 (it was signed by Hardy). Despite this, there are seemingly no auction records for her painted work at all.
A recent sale at Cheffins (24.5% buyer’s premium) in Cambridge managed to finally change this and brought her name back to the limelight, temporarily at least.
The strong price fetched for a portrait of artist-plantsman Sir Cedric Lockwood Morris (1889-1982), was primarily, but not wholly, due to the subject.
Most probably painted between 1927-32, it dated from a time when the two artists knew each other well. Morris had tutored Gribble for a short period and then, in 1929, rented Pound Farm in Higham, Suffolk, which was owned by Gribble and her husband Douglas Doyle-Jones, a barrister who, like Gribble, came from a wealthy background.
The Tudor farmhouse, which had no electricity but had an extensive although unkempt garden, became home to Morris and his partner Arthur Lett-Haines and was the first of their restoration and planting projects. With Gribble living at nearby at Valley Farm, perhaps this was the moment she painted the portrait?
When she died three years later, she left the farm (simply known as ‘The Pound’) to Morris.
The 21¼ x 19¼in (54 x 49cm) oil on canvas at Cheffins was a significant picture in its own right.
It showed her abilities with a paintbrush were not too far removed from her engravings and the catalogue mentioned how “the bright patchwork palette demonstrates the impact that Morris’ tutelage had on Gribble’s practice”.
The portrait, which certainly captured Morris’ likeness and an interesting composition with the subject set against the background of a brick wall, had remained in the collection of Gribble’s daughter until it was sold at Christie’s South Kensington back in 1987.
At the Cambridge firm’s Art & Design sale on October 26, it was estimated at £2000-3000 and, despite of a few condition issues including a puncture from the back of the canvas showing through to the front, it drew strong interest and sold at £9500 to London dealer Florence Evans Fine Art. Evans said in an Instagram post about the purchase: “There is so much to love here, aside from the poignant story of the artist and sitter - look how Cedric’s camouflage brick-patterned coat echoes the background wall - no doubt the bricks and mortar of Pound Farm, itself.”
While the sum set a benchmark for Gribble commercially, whether further paintings are likely to emerge on the market or even exist in any quantity remains unknown.
By Morris himself
A painting by Cedric Morris himself which he made at around the same time was also on offer at Cheffins. It made a higher price, although it attracted less interest.
A flower picture dated 1928, it depicted a bouquet of asters, lilies, pot marigolds and strawflowers and came by descent within the artist’s family. Other than a light layer of surface dirt, the 17¾ x 15¾in (45 x 40cm) signed oil on canvas was in good overall condition. The work was fairly typical of the artist’s plant studies although it was perhaps less commercial than his brighter and more elaborate compositions either showing flowers in pots or fluttering in the garden.
While such works have broken the six-figure barrier on multiple occasions in the last few years, here the guide was sensibly kept lower at £20,000-30,000 and it sold on low estimate to the London trade.
Bell bears fruit
Among the other Modern British pictures at the sale bringing competition was a still-life by Quentin Bell (1910-96) that flew over an £800-1200 pitch.
The artist, who was also a potter, writer and teacher, was the son of the art critic Clive Bell and the artist Vanessa Bell, and the picture titled Green Apples certainly had a strong air of Bloomsbury about it.
The 17¼ x 14½in (44 x 36.5cm) oil on millboard was unsigned and its date was unknown but had previously sold through Norfolk Street Gallery in Cambridge. At Cheffins, it drew good interest on the day and eventually sold at £10,000 to a London dealer. It was the highest sum at auction for a painting by Bell according to Artprice.com.
Another lot that generated decent bidding was a preparatory work by Graham Sutherland (1903-80). Road Rising between Hedges was a pencil, pen and ink, gouache and tempera on squared paper which was signed and dated Sutherland 39.
Measuring 11¾ x 8¾in (30 x 22cm), it was an attractive semi-abstract study which closely related to the larger finished composition which is now held at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery. With a good date and subject, the sketch, which had provenance to London dealer Frost & Reed, was estimated at £5000-7000 but sold at £8500 to a London private buyer - a decent sum for a work of this size.
The highest price of the auction overall came for a signed Bridget Riley (b.1931) screenprint from 1971 titled Firebird. It overshot an estimate of £12,000-18,000 and took £33,000 from a London private buyer.
With a mixture of art, furniture, ceramics and glass, the 636-lot sale raised a hammer total of £233,410 with 90% of the lots sold. According to the auction house, the event attracted almost 150 new bidders to Cheffins.