London Eye: October 2010
However, while the celebrities, collectors and curators patrol the fashionable contemporary art galleries of the Frieze Fair, elsewhere in London, and beyond the capital, life goes on.
This month we glance back at one or two recent auctions that took place a long way from the gravitational pull of the London media circus and look ahead at some interesting things happening in November.
Arguably the most newsworthy event of recent weeks on the UK’s provincial auction circuit was the sale by Duke’s of Dorchester of the contents of Melplash Court, a 17th-century country house in Dorset. It was an extraordinary collection, reflecting the sophisticated and eclectic tastes of the house’s past occupants.
It will come as no surprise to those familiar with recent trends in the global art market that some of the sale’s more significant prices were for Chinese export porcelain and early jade carvings. Having exported its wares to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, China is now actively engaged in buying back its material culture. Despite Duke’s experience in this field there were some surprises, most notably the price paid for a pair of Chinese export blue and white wall mounts modeled as stags’ heads on shield-shape backplates wreathed in oak leaves. This bizarre cross-cultural take on the typical country house shooting trophy soared over an estimate of £2,000-4,000 to make £20,000 ($32,000).
Among the jades, a Qing dynasty yellow jade Buddhistic crouching lion with its head turned across its back, 90mm (3 1/2 inches) high, and raised on a hardwood stand, demolished a forecast of £2,000-4,000 to bring £180,000 ($288,000), while a similar yellow jade figure of an archaistic horse beat an estimate of £500-1,000 to realize £110,000 ($176,000).
These prices were all very encouraging, but they rather paled into normality when an important Chinese hardwood carving of a bald-headed deity seated on a lion came under the hammer. This small and highly talismanic carving had been sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York in 1980 and it appeared here with an estimate of £30,000-50,000. The hammer price of £320,000 ($511,775) provided further evidence, if any were needed, of the extraordinary rise of ancient Chinese art on the international art market in recent years and the willingness of mainland Chinese collectors to pay top dollar.
With several hundred years of collecting behind it, the British Museum is well-placed to pronounce on an object’s rarity. Thus when it endorsed the importance of a Flemish brass and silvered table clock offered at the Melplash sale, collectors took note. Dated to 1570, elaborately engraved, and inscribed Wecken Wifen Flam, this was clearly one for the scholarly horologists to wrestle over. They did, and a cautious estimate of £500-1,000 duly made way for a hammer price of £19,000 ($30,380).
Duke’s auctioneer Guy Schwinge has secured many significant instructions for his firm in recent years and Duke’s is now one of the UK’s most successful provincial auction houses, competing with London houses for the most valuable consignments. The Melplash sale can only have raised Duke’s profile even further.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, auctioneers Hartleys had been consigned an interesting archive of material relating to the successful children’s author Enid Blyton (1897-1968), celebrated for her “Famous Five” stories and, of course, for her invention of the still popular Noddy character.
The archive – from the estate of Ms. Blyton’s late daughter Gillian – included a number of the author’s original corrected typescripts. Given the impact her “Famous Five” stories had on the imaginations of generations of British children (and on readers around the world who read them in translation), it was perhaps not altogether surprising when they proved more valuable under the hammer than Hartleys expected.
Estimates were uniformly conservative, predominantly in the £300-500 range, but in the event Five Have a Wonderful Time was not untypical in raising £4,000 ($6,400). A number of other typescripts made similar prices, while a portrait of the author by the Irish painter Aubrey Claude Davidson-Houston (1906-1995), dated 1949, fetched £6,800 ($10,875). Are these destined for a museum somewhere?
The portrait was not the only Irish object of note in the Yorkshire sale. Towards the end of proceedings a fine Irish 18th-century carved mahogany card table confounded expectations of £3,000-5,000 to realize £26,000 ($41,580).
One or two other notable prices included £11,500 ($18,400) for Liverpool with Children by a red brick wall, an oil on canvas dated 1975, by the Lowryesque British painter Brian Shields, also know as Braaq (1951-1997), while two other similar works by the same painter made £10,000 ($16,000) and £7,000 ($11,200). An interesting early 20th-century Goldscheider figure of a young fisherboy, the figure naturalistically painted and seated on a stool, 47 1/4 inches high, made £6,000 ($9,500).
And so to a brief roundup of a few notable events on the near horizon. A new luxury antiques and fine art fair has been slated for Jan. 21-23 at Mere Golf & Country Club in Cheshire. Although it’s still a few months off, the fair’s organizer Ingrid Nilson of the Antiques Dealers Fairs Limited says 95 percent of the exhibitor stands have already been sold. Will the buyers come?
Items to be offered at the new fair include an oil on board entitled The Rush Cart came to Lees Brook by Helen Bradley, MBE (1900-1979), which will be offered by Haynes Fine Art of Broadway at £210,000 ($335,850), and a very smart Gillows walnut and thuya wood display sideboard, made to a design by Bruce Talbert, circa 1877, which will be for sale with Holly Johnson Antiques for a price yet to be disclosed.
If you were thinking of flying in for the coming season’s fairs you couldn’t wish for a more appropriate mode of transport in this Battle of Britain commemorative year than the Mark IX Spitfire which will be on display at the Antiques For Everyone Fair at Birmingham NEC from Oct. 28-31. Fair organizer Tiffany Pritchard said: “We are so pleased to be commemorating the 70th anniversary of this historic conflict. We are keeping the memory alive and paying tribute to all those who took part.” Battle of Britain aside, exhibitors will presumably be hoping that a certain amount of buying and selling will also be done at the fair.
Finally, while a media brouhaha surrounds the more outlandish creations one sees at the Frieze Fair, some young British painters are busy pushing quietly at the boundaries of the traditional medium of oil paint. One such painter is the innovative and critically acclaimed young artist Diarmuid Kelley. Having held a successful exhibition of his still lifes at Offer Waterman last year, Kelley returns to Waterman’s Chelsea gallery at 11 Langton St., London SW10 from Nov. 12 to Dec. 11 with a fine series of portraits. These have been made using a curious box device of a kind used by the 18th-century painter Joseph Wright of Derby. Kelley’s idiosyncratic and technically accomplished new portraits seem sure to win him even more admirers this time around.
This week the British government will unveil its Comprehensive Spending Review, which many fear could bring a scythe down on the British economy. Thus far, the art and antiques trade has proved stubbornly resilient. Watch this space.