Ceri Richards (1903-71) is often described as Wales’ most important artist of the mid-20th century and interest in his work has steadily grown as the market for modern pictures has expanded over recent times.
Born and growing up near Swansea, the artist had a spell as an electrical engineer apprentice before enrolling at Swansea School of Art and later winning a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art. He co-exhibited with Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Graham Sutherland among others during his lifetime.
Commercially his surreal interior scenes (particularly those from the 1940s-50s showing his music room) are the most sought-after part of his varied oeuvre. With bold outlines and striking colours, examples have fetched six-figure sums on a number of occasions.
He also produced collages and relief constructions, and his work explored themes ranging from tinplate workers (his father’s profession) to the rape of the Sabine women and the music of his favourite classical composers.
Fresh to the market
The picture on offer at the Cardiff sale was an early and highly personal work.
The portrait of the artist’s sister Esther from c.1931 came to auction from a private collection in Monmouthshire. The source was described as a ‘major collection of British neo-romantic paintings’ which was partially consigned to Rogers Jones – and the same one that yielded a portrait by Maurice Denton Welch which made £8000 at the Cardiff saleroom in August (reported in ATG No 2562).
Portraits by Richards are much rarer at auction than his surreal subjects, for example. While some of his interior scenes incorporate figures (often members of his family), a stand-alone portrait such as this remains an infrequent sight in the saleroom.
On the handful of occasions when one has emerged, the highest price achieved was the £12,000 for a portrait of his wife Frances that sold at Christie’s in 2006 (source: Artprice).
The 23½ x 19¾in (60 x 50cm) signed oil on canvas here was arguably a stronger image and it came to auction in good condition and ready to hang. Crucially, it was fresh to the market and with the estimate nicely pitched at £5000-7000 it drew considerable interest.
It came down to a bidding battle between a room bidder and an overseas private collector bidding online in the November 19 sale. It was knocked down to the latter at £14,000. The sum fetched was seemingly the highest for the artist at an auction outside London.
Hello to all that
Also drawing strong competition at the sale but causing more of a surprise was a limited-edition Edgar Holloway (1914-2008) print. From an edition of 50, the 8¼ x 6¾in (21 x 17cm) signed etching was titled Self Portrait No. 25: Goodbye to all that!.
The image was based on a drawing made by the artist in 1947.
Self-portraits form an important part of Holloway’s oeuvre. The South Yorkshire-born artist was largely self-taught and used books and manuals to learn the art of etching. Inspired by the great printmakers such as Rembrandt, Whistler and Augustus John, he used self-portraiture as a means to explore his own psyche, sometimes adopting an alternative persona.
Showing the artist looking over his shoulder, the picture had strong overtones to Robert Graves’ autobiography Good-Bye to All That with its themes of saying farewell to both war and the time of youth.
For followers of the artist, the image was quite well known, having featured as the cover image for Robert Meyrick’s 1996 catalogue raisonnée The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway. Copies, however, are rarely available at auction with only a few opportunities to acquire one emerging in the last five years.
The example in Cardiff came from a vendor with a large Welsh art collection in Ceredigion. It had no obvious condition issues.
Holloway’s market is somewhat niche but it received a boost in 2021 when a copy of the etching Self Portrait No. 6, showing the artist when he was younger, made £1800 at Sworders in 2021, a record price for a work by Holloway in any medium. The current lot was therefore a good test to see if such a price level could be sustained.
Before this sale, the highest price for a copy of Self Portrait No. 25 was just £240 at Toovey’s in 2016. Here the estimate was set at £200-300 but, with two internet bidders going head-to-head from £360 onwards, the price was driven up to an eye-catching £2600. It was knocked down to a London private collector.
Gerrard new high
A record also came for a painting by Anglesey-born artist Tom Gerrard (1923-76). While the artist is still relatively little known and only a couple of dozen works have ever emerged at auction, he has begun to receive more recognition in the last two or three years.
He broke through the £1000 barrier for the first time when three Welsh landscapes sold above this level at Ewbank’s in March 2021.
Gerrard was a good friend of Sir Kyffin Williams who was clearly a strong influence on his style and approach. Indeed, Sir Kyffin is known to have bought some of Gerrard’s paintings.
The 20in x 2ft 11in (51 x 88cm) signed oil on board depicted a mountainside hamlet in Snowdonia with slate fences featuring prominently in the foreground. It came from a private collection in the Vale of Glamorgan and was pitched at £500-700.
Again it drew a two-way battle on the internet, in this case from £1100 onwards, and it ended up selling at a record £3600 with a private Gloucestershire collector outbidding an Anglesey buyer.
The auction also posted a record for Ifor Pritchard (1940-2010), another artist who adopted Sir Kyffin’s impasto technique, building up his canvases with thick blocks of solid colour.
Pritchard’s main subject, however, was workers in the slate quarries of Gwynedd where he grew up.
Wending Home, a 15¾ x 23½in (40 x 60cm) signed oil on canvas, depicted a line of quarrymen walking on a path above a village. It came to auction from a Denbighshire vendor and was pitched at £500-1000.
This was seemingly the first time a multi-figure composition had appeared at auction. It attracted strong interest and, after a battle between two collectors of Welsh art – one from north Wales and the other a private Welsh ‘ex-pat’ collector from London – it was knocked down to the latter at £3400.
The price surpassed the £2000 for Y Gafael Tyner (The Gentle Touch) sold at Rogers Jones in November 2021, thereby raising the bar for Pritchard at auction.
The overall total for the auction was £350,740 with 78% of the 608 lots sold. This helped the auction house exceed last year’s overall sales total, making it yet another record year in terms of turnover.