Shepherd and sheep picture

Shepherd and his flock by Joseph Digby-Curtis, £25,000 at Tennants.

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Offered at Tennants (24% buyer’s premium) in Leyburn on July 15, it was deemed an extraordinary work on a number of counts.

The artist was active in the Newark area in the early 19th century and, although little is known about his life and few examples of his work have ever emerged, he clearly had considerable flair for producing charming livestock scenes and capturing the physical traits of farm animals.

The picture offered in North Yorkshire, a 2ft 1in x 4ft 9in (62.5cm x 1.44m) signed oil on canvas, was an unusually large example of its type.

Its composition also differed significantly from the standard format of livestock portraits which tend to feature a single animal in profile. Here five sheep of different ages and states of shearing are given varying placements across the canvas and are shown at different angles. A farmhouse can be seen to the background on the left while a landscape and town appear to the right. A proud farmer in striking shepherd’s garb - for whom the work may well have been painted - stands at the centre before a wooden barn.

Healthy specimens

By showing one sheep coated and the other in the flesh, the picture was probably commissioned to show off the owner’s proficiency at producing both wool and meat. It carries an inscription: A Lamb Hogg, these sheep are brothers, the lamb Hog Fleece 12.75, the other when one year, J Footit, a shear Ram Ewe fourteen years old.

It came to auction from the estate of Harrogate collectors Martin and Felicity Mackintosh who were keen buyers of art, antiques and jewellery. The source provided 20 lots to the Tennants auction, of which this ovine picture proved the most valuable.

Despite some significant condition problems, including some extensive restoration and retouching to old tears and damages, a number of bidders were prepared to look beyond these issues given the appeal and rarity of the work. Estimated at £3000-5000, it was knocked down at £25,000 to a UK private buyer who saw off interest from the trade.

The underbidder told ATG the picture was “about as good as it gets” when it comes to this type of painting. “It was bizarre and wonderful… and big,” they added.

Rare artist

Although few details are recorded about the artist Joseph Digby-Curtis, crucially he is known to have worked for the renowned Leicestershire livestock breeder Robert Bakewell (1725-95).

Bakewell transformed the practice of animal husbandry with his use of stock controls, selective breeding and enclosed fields and, as the need for greater food yields intensified at the start of the Industrial Revolution, it meant that Bakewell became fantastically wealthy.

His star ram, named Two Pounder on account of the breeder’s stated aim ‘‘to produce 2 lbs of mutton where there was only 1 before”, is believed to have earned Bakewell no less than 1200 guineas in stud fees in a single year. That famous animal was painted by Digby-Curtis in 1790, a work now in the Royal Agricultural University Collection in Cirencester which is considered the most important portrait of a sheep of the era.

The portrayal of the ram to the left of the picture at Tennants had some similarity to the ‘Two Pounder’ portrait as did the way trees to the background were conceived.

Shepherd and sheep picture detail

A detail of Shepherd and his flock by Joseph Digby-Curtis, £25,000 at Tennants.

While nothing comparable by Digby-Curtis has seemingly sold at auction before (only a few lower-value prints showing Newark are recorded), the price fetched in Leyburn therefore establ ished a benchmark for the artist commercially.

The hammer price also looked pretty hefty when compared against the top prices by other 19th century agricultural folk painters. The record for John Vine of Colchester (1809-1867), for example, stands at £14,000 for Six prize Berkshire pigs (Bonhams, 2014), while works by John Miles of Northleach (1781-1849) have never reached over £10,000 other than the ‘one-off ’ biblical painting The Naming of the Animals (most recently sold for £80,000 at Sotheby’s from the Stanley Seeger collection in 2014).

The record for the rarely seen George B Newmarch (b.1801) meanwhile came back in 2001 when a picture of a shepherd and sheep sold at Dreweatt Neate for £10,800. Another longstanding record is the £21,000 for Portrait of a boy, terrier and chestnut pony in a landscape by John Boultbee (1753-1812) that sold at Bonhams in 1991.

One other important name who painted animals during the agricultural revolution was Thomas Weaver of Shrewsbury (1775-1844), a number of whose cow pictures are now in the Royal Agricultural University Collection. His record stands at an eyecatching £70,000 for a pair of paintings depicting the heads of rams that sold at Sotheby's in 2020.