For a fleeting moment back in 2016, Gloucestershire saleroom Chorley’s (22.5/15% buyer’s premium) held the auction record for a still-life by Modern British artist Christopher Wood.
Tulips and Hyacinths (1926) was knocked down for £220,000, more than seven times its lower estimate. The record stood for only a few hours: another still-life by Wood fetched £320,000 at Sotheby’s later the same day.
Its success was partly down to the provenance.
The picture had been acquired many years before by Lt Col Murray ‘Victor’ Burrow Hill (1887-1986), an officer in the First World War and a lawyer by profession who had a passion for 20th century British art and bought well.
On December 5, five more paintings executed by major 20th century painters from the same collection, which had passed by descent, were offered at the Chorley’s saleroom at Prinknash Abbey.
Three out of the five sold for a combined £213,000.
Opening the group was another still-life, this time by the London-born Jewish painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939).
The compact 12 x 15in (31 x 40cm) oil on board was thought to have been purchased by Hill directly from the artist in the year it was painted.
Depicting an earthenware vessel and blue ewer, it was painted during the artist’s stay with Bonamy and Valentine Dobrée in Larrau in the Pyrenees in the summer of 1922.
Never seen publicly before, and with the added appeal of being included in Sarah MacDougall’s catalogue raisonné on Gertler, it attracted decent interest and was knocked down over double its estimate for £19,000.
“Having never been exhibited it was totally new to the market and consequently generated a lot of excitement”, said Chorley’s director Thomas Jenner-Fust. “A battle between trade and private buyers saw the spoils on this occasion going to the UK trade.”
He described the use of the earthenware pitcher, blue enamel jug and white tablecloth as “atypical in Gertler’s work” as he generally re- used favourite props traced from one painting to the next.
He painted still-lifes throughout his career with fruit and vegetables common among his subjects. While portraits and nudes dominate his top prices on the secondary market, around half-a-dozen still-lifes have topped £30,000 at auction.
O’Conor at his peak
The financial heavyweight of the Hill collection was a peak-period oil painting of a French river scene by Roderic O’Conor (1860-1940).
The Irish artist, who was recognised only after his death as a pioneer of Post-Impressionism among English-speaking artists, executed Le Loing at Sundown in c.1902.
He had first discovered the small town of Montigny-sur-Loing, situated on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau near Paris, in the late 1880s when he was a student in the French capital.
Although the 21in x 2ft 1in (54 x 65cm) oil on canvas came just after O’Conor’s full-blooded post- Impressionist canvases of the 1890s, it had all the same hallmarks: thick and gestural brushwork and a bold palette.
Together with its fresh-to-market appeal (it had last sold at auction in the O’Conor studio sale at Hotel Drouot in 1956), it doubled its top estimate to sell for £120,000 via thesaleroom.com to an Irish private buyer.
“Although O’Conor is a very overlooked figure, more colourful Impressionist works from his early career can achieve six figures at auction”, said Jenner-Fust.
“The picture shows the influence that Van Gogh and Gaugin had on O’Conor and perfectly evokes a summer’s evening.
“With a hammer price of double the top estimate it shows that the market for Irish art is still bullish.”
The third work was an oil study by the popular equine artist Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) for his large- scale painting Why Weren’t You Out Yesterday (1935).
The finished oil, considered one of Munnings’ most humorous paintings, featured his wife, Violet, a family friend and four of his own horses. It was based on a portrait of Mrs Cutting and her daughters, members of a prominent New Jersey family painted in 1935.
“Spontaneity, immediacy, understanding and above all, enjoyment is apparent in this study”, said Jenner-Fust. “It also captures Munnings returning, as he did throughout his life, to two of his greatest passions: horses and hunting.”
The preparatory painting, which had been acquired for the Hill collection from Christie’s in 1951 for £105 (around £2500 today), was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art and showed some of the creative processes Munnings went through to produce the finished work.
It was comfortably secured above the £60,000 top estimate for £74,000 to a UK private buyer.
“The Munnings was a strong price particularly in light of other comparable works underperforming in 2022”, said Jenner-Fust.
“We have a good number of private buyers with an interest in Munnings and in equestrian art in general which is crucial in achieving this sort of result.”
The two unsold lots from the Hill collection were a Matthew Smith (1879-1959) still-life estimated at £15,000-20,000 and a Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) Yorkshire landscape guided at £3000-5000.