Portrait of Betty May by Edgar Rowley Smart, £6200 at Reeman Dansie.

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They were among a number of works that emerged from three different sources, all with interesting artistic connections, that boosted the latest Antiques & Fine Art sale at Reeman Dansie (22.5% buyer’s premium) of Colchester.

The vendor and her husband used to frequent the Fitzroy Tavern and drink with the likes of artists Augustus John and the ‘Queen of Bohemia’ Nina Hammett. Writers such as Dylan Thomas and George Orwell were also to be found often at the watering hole that acted as a meeting place for many interesting figures of the period.

Colourful character

The most eye-catching and valuable work of the consignment was a portrait of one of the area’s most colourful characters in its heyday: the model, singer, dancer and clairvoyant Betty May (1894-1980).

It was painted by Edgar Rowley Smart (1887-1934), a Manchester-born artist who was close to and greatly influenced by Augustus John (he had studied under him at the latter’s studio in Dorset). Indeed, the 2ft x 20in (61 x 51cm) oil on canvas, which showed the sitter in distinctive gypsy-style garb and thoughtful pose, was very much in the manner of many of John’s portraits.

As a model, May sat for John and other artists including sculptors Jacob Kramer and Jacob Epstein. She first modelled for Epstein in c.1920 (a bronze bust with arms crossed was displayed at the Leicester Galleries that year) and he first introduced her to other members of the Fitzrovian set.

The fact that the current work was signed by Rowley Smart and inscribed Betty May, one of Epstein’s models on the back suggested it may have dated from the early 1920s.

May, who was born in London’s East End (her original name was Bessie Golding), documented her fascinating life in her autobiography Tiger Woman: My Story which detailed her four marriages and other relationships as well as her interest in astrology (she was associated with the prominent English occultist Aleister Crowley).

How well she knew Rowley Smart is unclear but her links to John make it likely they were closely connected, at least during the period before the artist began to travel abroad, primarily to France, on account of health reasons.

Director and auctioneer at Reeman Dansie Jonathan Benson described the picture as an “interesting portrait that had a very good look”. He added: “The combination of an extraordinary sitter, interesting artist and fact that it was so fresh to market, meant it ticked a lot of boxes.”

One issue that inevitably affected it commercially was the condition, however. Although it was in an overall ‘hangable’ state, it had some areas of shrinkage and paint loss as well as a total of seven old patch repairs that could be seen on the back of the canvas.

The estimate, therefore, was kept conservative at £700-1000, a level that attracted a good number of online ‘watchers’ as well as some notable commission interest and a number of phone bidders. It was eventually knocked down at £6200 to a UK buyer bidding online.

The price was an auction record for Rowley Smart according to, outscoring the £4900 previous high for a view of Paris sold at Manchester saleroom Capes Dunn in 2012.

Underlining the fact that it was the subject making the real difference here, a still-life by the artist from the same source made £500 at Reeman Dansie while a head study crayon sketch fetched £170.

Hamnett head study


Portrait of a lady (possibly a self-portrait) by Nina Hamnett, £1500 at Reeman Dansie.

Another work from the same source was a drawing by Nina Hamnett (1890-1956), a head study from 1924 that was thought may have been a self-portrait.

Born in Wales, she became connected with many leading artists in both London and Paris - she was famously both the model and lover of Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Roger Fry - but her flamboyant bohemian life is sometimes thought to have overshadowed her work.

From 1913-19 she worked for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square, painting murals and designs on candlesticks. She would socialise with the likes of John and Thomas at the nearby Fitzroy Tavern - she was said to be a great teller of stories, with her favourite tipple being a double rum and brandy

She certainly knew May well, although at some point they appear to have been rivals to some degree. However, both women seemingly remained chums - at one point they were able to extract £25 each from a popular newspaper that had confused their identities in a photograph, a windfall that funded an all-day party at the Fitzroy Tavern.

As well as working as an artist, Hamnett also taught and wrote several books but died after falling from the window of her London flat. In addition to her paintings, she produced book illustrations, spontaneous pen-and-ink drawings and pencil sketches such as this one.

Examples of her work do not appear at auction very often, partly because her body of surviving work is not huge. Portraits - especially of her famous friends - top the price list and the auction record for a drawing is the £16,000 for a portrait of Edith Sitwell offered at Dreweatts’ sale of part of the Sitwell family collection in 2021

With a good 1920s date (Hamnett’s work is sometimes said to have declined after 1930), the 9½in (24cm) square pencil drawing here was signed and dated. It was also inscribed Paris indicating it had been executed on one of her frequent trips to the French capital where she was also a well-known character in the cafes on the left bank.

The condition of the drawing was untouched but the fact that it was a bit faint may have limited its value commercially. Nevertheless, it attracted decent bidding against a £500-700 estimate and sold at £1500 to a London buyer.

Poet and painter


Horse and Moon by Denton Welch, £5400 at Reeman Dansie.

A work on paper from a separate source at the Colchester sale that drew interest was a small mixed-media study by Denton Welch (1915- 48). Titled Horse and Moon, it came from the estate of Peggy Mundy-Castle, a poet who was a friend of Welch and the person credited with persuading him to pursue a writing career alongside his painting.

She lived about a mile away from Welch’s Tonbridge home in an 18th century house on the outskirts of the Kent town, where she hosted a kind of salon for local writers and artists.

The consignment included some books and Christmas cards but this was the only picture.

Measuring 7 x 5½in (18 x 14cm) and signed with the artist’s initials, it came with a letter from Welch dated March 1943 that was sold as part of the lot.

It read: “Dear Peggy, I have just heard from Leicester Galleries that it was you who bought my picture! Can you judge how surprised I was! Friends are the last people to buy one’s pictures, one imagines! It has never happed to me before. I do hope you like it and one day may be able to sell it for more than you paid for it….I am glad you bought that one, for I like it one of the best of my latest pictures.”

While it is not known how much Mundy-Castle originally paid for the work, prices for Welch have risen significantly in the last decade, meaning it would have undoubtedly increased in value as the artist had hoped. Underlining this point, among recent strong sales a small but eye-catching self-portrait equalled the auction record for Welch when it sold for £9500 at Gloucestershire auction house Dominic Winter last year.

For the Reeman Dansie work the estimate was set at £1500-2500 and, after attracting a number of parties, it sold at £5400 to a commission bidder.

This was the fourth-highest price for Welch according to The buyer was thought to be a collector who also bought the other lots from the same source: the two group lots of books and Christmas cards which fetched £1800 and £1900 respectively.

Bell bidding battle


Fields near the Sea by Trevor Bell, £6200 at Reeman Dansie.

An early abstract by Trevor Bell (1930-2017) which came to auction from a different local deceased estate became the subject of another bidding battle.

Fields near the Sea, a 4ft x 11¾in (1.21m x 30cm) oil on board which was signed and dated 57, was one of the elongated compositions that the Leeds-born artist produced soon after he left his teaching post at Harrogate College of Art, selling his home and coming to work in St Ives.

These abstracts often relate to the interaction of the sea and landscape, as was the case here, and works from this period tend to be much more sought after than his later output.

While five much larger works on paper from the 1970s-90s were either unsold or got away below their £800-1200 estimate at the auction, the reaction to this ‘right period’ work was rather different. Pitched at £1000-1500, it came down to a battle between an online bidder from the West Country and a determined bidder in the room, before it was knocked down to the former at £6200 - an above-average sum for Bell at auction and among the highest prices recorded at an auction outside London.

Meanwhile, two works by Mary Fedden (1915-2012) both made decent sums at the Reeman Dansie sale, although one was an aftersale. With contrasting subjects, they represented the two different points of the artist’s career and sold to different buyers.


Whitby Harbour by Mary Fedden, £6800 at Reeman Dansie.

A painting titled Whitby Harbour from 2003 came to auction from a private Norfolk collection having been purchased from Derbyshire gallery Neptune Fine Art. The 11½ x 15¼in (29 x 39cm) signed oil on canvas depicted shells on the beach with the sea and a boat to the background. Estimated at £6000-8000, it sold at £6800.

The other work was a still-life of a hyacinth from 1975 which was slightly larger but had some cracking and shrinkage to the paint surface, something the auction house said is frequently the case with Fedden’s pictures of this period as she often painted straight from the tube onto unprepared surfaces.

Estimated at £7000-10,000, it was unsold on the day but interest from more than one party developed subsequently and it found a new home at £8000. This was significantly above the £3600 it fetched when it previously appeared at Lyon & Turnbull in 2021.

Harwood trio


Seagulls by Lucy Harwood, £4000 at Reeman Dansie.

Three paintings by Lucy Harwood (1893-1972) all sold in Colchester, with two going beyond predictions. Works by the Suffolk-born painter have risen in value significantly over the last decade and here it was the two brightly coloured landscapes on offer that fetched solid sums in particular.

Seagulls, a 23½ x 19¾in (60 x 50cm) signed oil on canvas, came from the collection of the late David Smith - a collector who had converted an old schoolhouse in a remote Suffolk village where he showcased his eclectic collection of English, Welsh and Irish vernacular furniture, Modern British paintings, artefacts and curios. He had bought from dealers, auction houses and car boot sales over a 35-year period and had previously been a client of Reeman Dansie itself.

The Colchester saleroom sold the entire contents in 300 lots and, while the furniture performed relatively well, this attractive Harwood landscape also drew good interest against its £2000-3000 estimate and was sold at £4000 to the trade.

The following lot, another smaller Harwood landscape sold at £2800 (estimate £1000-1500) to a different trade buyer. n