A small sky study by Thomas Churchyard that made a record £9000 at Bishop & Miller.

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A record price for Thomas Churchyard (1798-1865) was among the picture highlights at auctions outside London this autumn.

Based in Woodbridge, Churchyard was a lawyer and part-time artist who produced numerous views of the local area and is sometimes referred to as ‘Suffolk’s natural painter’.

Greatly influenced by Norwich School painter John Crome, over the years some of his work was mistaken for the hands of Constable, Cotman or indeed Crome himself.

In terms of public collections, examples by Churchyard are held by Tate Britain, Woodbridge Museum and Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.

Churchyard was also a voracious collector. When he died his art collection - including 23 oils by Crome and four Constables - was sold at auction, although hundreds of his own works passed to his children and were not widely dispersed until more than 60 years later.

A small, unassuming but finely crafted cloud study by Churchyard came to Bishop & Miller (25% buyer’s premium) of Stowmarket as part of a dedicated sale of items from Eyton Court in Leominster, Herefordshire, located on the other side of the country.

The Grade II-listed property was put on the market last year and it yielded almost 500 lots of furniture, ceramics, books, folk art and traditional paintings to the Suffolk saleroom which were offered on September 29. The Churchyard picture was the star performer. Although unsigned, the 6¾ x 4¾in (17 x 12cm) oil on board was inscribed Emma to the top right, most likely a reference to Emma Churchyard, the artist’s daughter. It also had a Spink & Son label and a further label signed by one EC Charlesworth.

This latter connection piqued the interest of the artist’s followers. The Rev Eric C Charlesworth, who lived in Woodbridge and died last year, was an important collector of the artist’s paintings.

A group of 16 pictures by Churchyard from his collection all performed well at Dominic Winter in 2017, including a view of the River Deben in Suffolk that made the previous highest price at auction when it was knocked down at £4200.

Modest inheritance

This cloud study had seemingly left his collection slightly earlier. It sold at Bellmans in 2015 for £400, surpassing a £100-200 estimate. Indeed, many works by Churchyard have sold at around that level, partly because, despite being a part-time artist, he produced a massive body of work and the supply on the market is still strong today.

The reference to his daughter Emma on the picture in Stowmarket was also not unusual. When he died, Churchyard’s family inherited little money but received bundles of his small oil paintings and albums of watercolours. While Emma was one of six siblings, she became a competent artist herself and kept much of the collection together (she died unmarried in 1878).

Many works were later sold at the Churchyard family sale held by Arnott and Everett in Woodbridge in 1927 (close to 4000 lots were sold for a total of £600) and nowadays individual watercolours from the albums come up fairly regularly at auction - 30 pages from one such album sold for prices between £60 and £500 recently at Reeman Dansie of Colchester.

Oil paintings are rarer and usually take the form of small panels - either cigar box lids, pine panels or the compressed board which was popular at the time. The backs of these often bear the names of his children, added when he gave them his paintings. He also sometimes added his initials TC.

According to dealer John Day who now runs the East Anglian Traditional Art Centre and is compiling a catalogue raisonné of Churchyard’s work, sometimes the ‘TC’ can be mistaken for ‘JC’, catching out unwary buyers as his works were often a close match for Constable’s oil sketches.

“There is no record of the two artists having met,” Day told ATG, “but warnings of confusion between the artists’ pictures go back to 1949.”

The methodical cloud study - an example of what Constable famously termed ‘skying’ - was seemingly one of Churchyard’s best works of this type and showed how his quality of observation was not too far removed from his more famous contemporary.

Day added: “Churchyard was a great observer of nature and the small sky study, dedicated to his daughter Emma… had a good local provenance going back to Rev Charlesworth, who lived in Woodbridge, so probably the painting had lived in Churchyard’s hometown for many years.”

With a good number of works making notable sums at recent auctions in East Anglia and elsewhere, Day believes interest in Churchyard is increasing and may be returning to the kind of level last reached in the 1990s.

“I have studied Thomas Churchyard’s work for half a century and have seen ups and downs. You may recall the David Messum exhibition in 1998 which was Churchyard’s bicentenary. This was the last time the artist hit the multi thousands.” Regarding the current work, he said: “I knew collectors would want it… I have some wealthy clients for Churchyard who occasionally show their hand.”

It would seem they did indeed turn out for this one. Estimated at £600-800 at Bishop & Miller, it drew competition on the phone, online and in the room and sold at £9000 to UK bidder on the phone.

“This record price indicates Churchyard is becoming more sought after and collected,” said Day. Assuming the vendor here had purchased it at the 2015 sale, it also proved to be a highly profitable investment.

For more information on the artist and to contact John Day, visit

Munnings horse fair


A view of a horse fair by Alfred Munnings, £32,000 at Cotswold Auction Company.

Another autumn highlight, albeit one that made a more expected price, came at Cotswold Auction Company (24% buyer’s premium) in Cirencester when a small Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) painting was offered on October 17-18.

Emerging fresh to the market having been tucked away in a local Gloucestershire private collection for over 70 years, the 10 x 14in (26 x 36cm) signed oil on canvas was titled Barnet Fair, although there was some conjecture as to whether it actually depicted the well-known horse market in north London.

The presence of a grey pony, donkey and a boy in cap and red scarf, thought to be Jimmy Betts who modelled for the artist in his studio, meant it certainly had a familiar subject for the equine specialist.

Indeed, it dated from 1903, the same year Munnings painted the much larger The Last of the Fair which shows a similar group at the Barnet fair but with a different composition.

The latter painting was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy and is now held at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston.

In his autobiography Munnings reflected on the horses used in The Last of the Fair: “…my mind records that the old white pony with the forelock and mane was none other than the grey belonging to my landlord, Mr Alfred Wharton.” Was the same pony shown in the current work?

Curiously, while Munnings visited many horse fairs in Norfolk and Suffolk, no record exists of him ever having attended the one at Barnet. Along with the fact that the village depicted in the background of the current picture is very similar to that featured in Suffolk Horse Fair, Lavenham, a painting from 1901 in the collection of the Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, this suggested that the location here was actually in East Anglia instead. Indeed, Munnings later described the scenes at the Lavenham Horse Fair as starting him off painting such themes.

The picture had been acquired by a member of the vendor’s family from London dealer M Newman in 1947 for £175, a sum that equates to around £7500 in today’s prices.

Billed as a ‘small, but very evocative, oil on canvas’, the Gloucestershire saleroom gave it a £30,000-50,000 estimate and it drew a combination of internet interest as well as phone bidding including from the London trade.

It eventually sold at £32,000 to a private collector on the phone.

Although towards the lower end of its estimate, the sum was still pretty decent for a small work by Munnings.

Whitford’s herd instinct


The Swanwick Prize Cotswold Sheep Herd by Richard Whitford, £32,000 at Chorley’s.

Another work with a livestock subject making the same price but bringing more competition came at a nearby auction on the same day. The Swanwick Prize Cotswold Sheep Herd by Richard Whitford (c.1821-90) emerged at Chorley’s (23.5% buyer’s premium) in Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire, on October 17.

The Worcestershire-born artist initially worked as an excise officer in Manchester, London and then Oxfordshire before he was seemingly dismissed from his post in 1848 (accused of embezzlement). Returning to his native Evesham, he turned to animal portraiture, specialising in pictures of prize cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and dogs.

His output became highly sought after and he even gained a commission to paint the animals at the royal Shaw Farm in Windsor - allowing him to designate himself ‘Animal Painter to the Queen’.

Over 250 of his works are known but they do not appear regularly on the market. The 2ft 5in x 4ft 1in (74.5cm x 1.24m) oil on canvas at Chorley’s, which was signed and dated 1876, had been commissioned by Russell Swanwick of The Royal Agricultural Farm in Cirencester.

It depicted his prize-winning sheep at the Royal Agricultural Society’s show at Birmingham that same year (the inscriptions identifying the particular animals).

When Swanwick retired from farming he gave the picture to his successor whose family kept the picture at the renamed College Farm, Cirencester, until 1980. The work then travelled with family to Wales and passed to the current vendor by descent who decided to offer it at Chorley’s, in its county of origin.

In terms of condition, it was generally good but showed signs of age and old damage with some areas of restoration and needed a clean.

Commercially it had plenty in its favour with a combination of impeccable provenance, a quintessentially Cotswold subject and being a well-executed painting.

It may also have benefited from the recent run of strong prices for naïve agricultural scenes - not least the stellar sums posted at the Robert Kime sale at Dreweatts held earlier in October and the £25,000 for another sheep picture by Joseph Digby-Curtis at Tennants in July.

At Chorley’s the estimate was £5000-8000. But with significant interest in the room as well as online and five phone lines booked, this work was knocked down at £32,000 to a private Cotswolds buyer.

More than doubling the record auction price for Whitford, it overshot the £14,000 for a portrait of a prizewinning Cotswold ram from 1862 that sold at Moore Allen & Innocent back in 1998.