Sunflower by Ithell Colquhoun, £62,000 at Bonhams.

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The re-evaluation of the market for female artists has been under way for a number of years now.

But while there is certainly still a long way to go, the notable price rises for established women painters continues apace and the stream of surprise sums for ‘rediscovered’ or ‘forgotten’ women painters shows little sign of letting up.

The basic explanation goes likes this: both museums and private collectors are re-assessing the gender balance of the holdings, encouraging a reappraisal of the importance of these artists and thereby increasing demand.

While this is undoubtedly true, cynics might also point out that, with women artists now seen as having the greatest commercial potential, the profit incentive is what underpins this sector and is driving buyers to seek out further and more speculative opportunities.

Bonhams was among the firms that cottoned on to the way the market was developing some time ago. It launched dedicated auctions of Modern British female artists in September 2021 branded as Blazing a Trail: Modern British Women. Having now staged three of these annual sales, the auction house has certainly achieved some notable prices, although arguably works by leading names in particular would have made high prices wherever they appeared.

In terms of giving a platform for women artists, including some lesser-known and rising names, the auction house can claim the initiative has yielded some success, bringing more attention to female painters and perhaps encouraged some additional consignments that it may not otherwise have received.

Bonhams’ latest event on September 20 looked a bit thinner in terms of high-quality works but again brought some spirited bidding among the 78 lots and posted a decent share of significant prices.

Surrealist artist

In particular, two of the three highest sums for Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88) were recorded. The greater interest on both on women artists generally and early British Surrealism, of which Colquhoun was an exponent, have boosted her market considerably in recent years.

Both major collectors of Modern British art and some leading dealers in this field are now actively pursuing her work.

A marked increase in attention came around the time the Tate acquired more than 5000 sketches, drawings, paintings and commercial designs by Colquhoun in 2019 (they were transferred from the National Trust) and then a big leap came when an extraordinary £205,000 was bid for Anthurium, a vivid still-life from 1936 that sold at Bonhams in November last year. Setting a major record, it took the artist into a new league commercially.

At the current auction in New Bond Street another plant picture from the same year was on offer. Sunflower, a 22 x 18¼in (56 x 46cm) signed oil on canvas, was one of the 25 paintings that appeared in the artist’s first solo show in London, Exotic Plant Decorations which was held at the Fine Art Society (Anthurium also featured at the exhibition).

Colquhoun had started painting flower pictures in oil the year before, producing meticulously conceived still-lifes of orchids, begonias, lilies, gloxinia and fungi in the Surrealist style which she had developed since studying the works of Salvador Dalí during a stay in Paris in 1931.

Although for Colquhoun flowers symbolised the cycles of life and death, the Bonhams catalogue suggested that she was drawn to sunflowers due to the irrepressible and unruly growth as well as their erotic symbolism. It described the current work as ‘an important painting which is testament to her artistic development both technically and in terms of commercial and critical reception’.

While it was also billed as ‘museum quality’, it perhaps lacked the same degree of other-worldliness of Anthurium – what the artist herself described as ‘magic realism’.

Estimated at £20,000-30,000, it was bid to £62,000. Although the price was some way behind the sum for Anthurium, it was nevertheless the second highest at auction for Colquhoun.

Bonhams said it could not disclose any buyer information for specific lots but reported both international and UK buyers for the Colquhoun lots with bidders participating in the room, on the phone and online.


Nativity by Ithell Colquhoun, £50,000 at Bonhams.

Another picture at Bonhams that cemented her position commercially was an earlier work from c.1929, painted while she was a student at the Slade. A figurative picture titled Nativity, the signed oil on canvas measured 16¼ x 20in (41 x 51cm) and had been bought by the vendor at Bonhams Knightsbridge in 2005 for £1600.

It was offered with a copy of a letter from Colquhoun’s husband Toni del Renzio. Showing her inventive and experimental style, here it drew considerable competition against a £6000-8000 estimate and sold at £50,000, the third-highest price at auction for the artist but the most for a figurative painting – and a sizeable return for the prescient vendor.

Two further Colquhoun pictures sold above estimate. Oil on a Wet Road was a later work from 1963 and had previously sold at Bonhams for just £420 in 2009. Here it was pitched at £5000-7000 and sold at £22,000 – again showing the spectacular rise in the artist’s market over recent years.

A smaller watercolour from 1973 titled Dryad: Vine surpassed a £1000-1500 estimate and took £3800, the highest sum at auction so far for a work on paper by the artist according to

Nicholson trio


View from my Bedroom by Winifred Nicholson, £45,000 at Bonhams.

Overall, 66 of the 78 lots at the Bonhams auction sold (85%), generating a total of £789,775 including premium. This was marginally down on the £845,085 from 56 lots at the equivalent sale last year, which itself was down on the £1.59m from 63 lots at the inaugural Blazing a Trail sale in September 2021.

Among other key lots at the latest sale were three works by Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) that came from the same source. They had each been acquired directly from the artist by a member of the vendor’s family.

Two were paintings from the artist’s later period although the first to be offered, a view of Port Isaac in Cornwall from c.1970 estimated at £25,000-35,000, was one of the works left unsold on the day.

Bringing better interest was View from my Bedroom, an oil and metallic paint on canvas thought to date from the 1960s. Measuring 2ft 3in x 2ft 6in (69 x 76cm), it was billed as ‘a classic example of Nicholson’s signature windowscapes painted from her own bedroom’.

While not as striking as some of her brighter views from a window, especially those that combine a still-life in the foreground and a seascape to the background, the intriguing composition of an open book and patterned curtains gave it an atmosphere of ‘wisdom, reflection and calm’ (as the artist herself referred to the use of these yellow tones).

Estimated at £20,000-30,000, it sold at £45,000 - a decent sum for a later work by the artist even if some way below the six-figure sums of Nicholson’s best works.

The other picture by the artist at the current sale was a pastel and watercolour of wild flowers in Greece that made £3500 (estimate £2000-3000).

Vivid Vezelay


Composition Objets et Soleil by Paule Vezelay, £16,000 at Bonhams.

Among the lots by slightly less familiar artists performing well was an abstract by Paule Vezelay (1892-1984). Composition Objets et Soleil a 20¼ x 16¼in (52 x 41cm) oil on canvas from 1930, dated from a period when she was living with the Surrealist painter André Masson (the two artists were lovers). Indeed, the calligraphic lines featured in the picture were reminiscent of those of Masson himself.

Vezelay was described as an ‘unmistakably genuine talent’ by Paul Nash back in 1936 and, while she subsequently fell out of the limelight somewhat over the years, her work received welcome attention after being included in the Pallant House exhibition Radical Women in 2020.

Estimated at £6000-8000, the lot drew a decent bidding battle before being knocked down at £16,000, the third-highest price for the artist at auction.

Dismorr's Venice


Venice with Gondolas and Church by Jessica Dismorr, £16,000 at Bonhams.

The same price came for a view of gondolas in Venice by Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939). Dating from c.1911-12, the 15¾ x 12½in (40 x 32cm) oil on panel had been bought by the vendor from art dealer Anthony Hepworth.

It was painted around the time she started studying at the Académie de La Palette in Paris and demonstrated the stylised approach with subdued tones that she adopted as she became associated with the Rhythm group (named after the avant-garde magazine of the same title).

Pitched at £7000-10,000, it was bid to £16,000, matching the highest price at auction for the artist according to and providing yet a further indication of the strengthening demand for female artists.

The buyer’s premium at Bonhams was 28/27/21/14.5%.