The Weavers by Arthur William Devis

The Weavers by Arthur William Devis, £130,000 at Gorringe’s.

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Dating from 1792, it came to the auction in Lewes, East Sussex, on March 12 from a local private house which also yielded a number of other notable pictures, although none that matched the level of interest achieved by this 17¼ x 23½in (44 x 59.5cm) oil on canvas which took a hammer price of £130,000.

The vendor had paid £6000 for it at Sotheby’s in 1979 but the substantial expansion in the market for ‘on-the-spot’ topographical views of the sub-continent by western artists, especially those from the first wave of Orientalists in the late 18th century, meant its value had increased significantly.

The artist, who was the son of the renowned portrait painter Arthur Devis (c.1711-87), travelled to the East Indies in 1782 as a draughtsman aboard an expedition ship called the Antelope.

After a shipwreck, the crew spent a year in the Pelew Islands in the Pacific Ocean but Devis eventually made it to India where he spent 10 years painting portraits and local scenes.

The work in East Sussex was one of 26 studies illustrating the ‘Arts, manufactures and agriculture of Bengal’ that Devis painted in Santipur in West Bengal in the early 1790s.

He originally intended to publish the works as a group of around 30 prints but the project never materialised due to the artist’s financial difficulties forcing his return to England in 1795.

However, the series of paintings was exhibited in Madras to much acclaim and a number were later shown at the Royal Academy. Six of these works depicting subjects such as a blacksmith’s shop, an assayer at work and a potter throwing a wheel, are now in UK public collections including the V&A, Ashmolean Museum and the British Library.

These views of everyday local scenes remain admired for their treatment of the subjects with a graceful and candid dignity rather than the exotic stereotypes for which later Orientalists are sometimes criticised.

A detail of The Weavers

A detail of The Weavers by Arthur William Devis that made £130,000 at Gorringe’s.

The subject of the current work therefore, added to the engaging composition and elegant handling of light, gave it significant commercial appeal. It was not without condition issues – the canvas had been relined 20-30 years ago and had some fine but stable craquelure running throughout – but none of them were serious enough to dampen interest.

Estimated at £5000-8000, it drew considerable interest from bidders both in the UK and India. With seven phone lines booked for the lot, it was taken up to £130,000 before it was knocked down to an Indian buyer.

The price ranks as the third highest at auction for Devis according to, behind only two works sold at Christie’s: a large group portrait of the children of Benjamin Goldsmid that made £160,000 in 2022 and another Indian scene showing Judge Suetonius Grant Heatly (who was often employed by the East India Company) that made £150,000 in 2005.

Eden extras

The Gorringe’s sale also offered a group of lots relating to Emily Eden (1797 - 1869), the 19th century aristocratic author and traveller who spent six years in the Indian subcontinent, that sold to the same buyer as the Devis picture.

See ATG's Book section for a further report on these Emily Eden lots.