London Eye: September 2010
As summer draws to a close, London is once again preparing for the big Frieze — the annual contemporary art fair that takes place in Regent’s Park, the impact of which extends across the capital throughout the month of October.
However, before the high-rolling, big-spending celebrities reach town to feast on a banquet of international contemporary art, there are plenty of other more historically interesting and equally news-worthy events worth pausing over. For example, an altogether different sort of freeze sets in at Christie’s this month when a fascinating collection of memorabilia relating to Scott of the Antarctic comes under the hammer.
The Charles Seymour Wright collection relates to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913. Wright (1887-1975), was the last surviving member of Scott’s Polar Party and the man who discovered the bodies of Scott and his two colleagues in November 1912. Trygge Gran, a Norwegian sailor, was also present that day and recorded how, standing outside the tent while Wright inspected the frozen bodies inside, suddenly “heard a noise…like a pistol shot…I was told this was Scott’s arm breaking as they raised it to take away the journals strapped under his arm.”
Some of those journals and other poignant relics form the centrepiece of Christie’s Exploration and Travel sale on Sept. 22. Consigned by Wright’s grandson in British Columbia, they include Wright’s skis, estimated at £6,000-£8,000 ($9,255-$12,350), his sledging tables, estimated at £4,000-£6,000 ($6,175-$9,255), his altitude scale in its sledging bag, which is expected to make £2,500-£3,500 ($3,850-$5,400), and a large and important archive of photographs of the fatal expedition, which could make as much as £30,000-£50,000 ($46,275-$77,125).
It will be fascinating to see whether this unique collection is acquired by a national institution and thus remain intact or whether it will be dispersed to private collectors. No doubt the Royal Geographical Society, which already holds a significant collection of Scott material, will be among the bidders.
There was a time when important country house sales would be virtually guaranteed to end up under the hammer of one of the London auction houses. Not any more, however. Today, when a significant country estate is to be sold, it is just as likely the instructions will go to one of the big provincial firms such as Gorringes in Sussex, Woolley & Wallis in Wiltshire, Tennants in Yorkshire, or Duke’s in Dorchester, all of whom have steadily transformed themselves in recent years into first-rate competitors to the London rooms.
Thus it was no surprise to hear that Duke’s had won the instructions to disperse the contents of Melplash Court, a delightfully pictureseque country pile in Dorset dating back to the 16th century. The house and extensive gardens testify to the impeccable taste of the last two postwar owners, the most recent being Tim and Fran Lewis, who have been resident since the early 1980s and whose family wealth came from the prewar North American railroad and lumber industries. Perusing the two sumptuous catalogs Duke’s have lovingly prepared for the three-day sale Sept. 22-24 is to find a traditional and typically eclectic “country house” taste that increasingly seems a thing of the past as collectors migrate increasingly toward the contemporary.
Twenty-five years ago, provincial estate sales like this were still a relatively common occurrence on the summer auction circuit (and were invariably conducted by Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Phillips). It is therefore not surprising that Duke’s director, Guy Schwinge, is currently beaming with pride at winning what he tells us is the largest and most important “on the premises” auction his firm has ever handled.
The Lewises were sophisticated cross-cultural collectors in the old-fashioned sense and so the material on offer is both historically interesting and adventurously contemporary, embracing fine period silver, rare Oriental ceramics, elegant period furniture, some fine pictures, and a whole lot else besides.
It’s hard to choose the highlights since there are so many objects that qualify, but there is expected to be fierce bidding for an extremely rare set of four panoramic views of Canton that document (and are perhaps contemporaneous with) the Great Fire of 1822. The set is expected to make £50,000-£100,000 ($77,125-$154,250). Also among the pictures is a fascinating 17th-century oil on panel by Abel Grimmer, depicting a wedding scene with merrymakers in the grounds of a manor house. Provenanced to London dealers Arthur Tooth & Sons, this intriguing picture could fetch £30,000-£50,000 ($46,275-$77,125), according to Duke’s estimate.
Duke’s are no strangers to headline-grabbing hammer prices and the Melplash sale looks likely to continue that encouraging trend.
The quintessentially English decorator taste typified by the Melplash sale will also be in evidence at Christie’s on Oct. 27 when two collections come under the hammer together. The first is a selection of objects consigned by the sought-after society interior designer Robert Kime. These will be offered alongside a range of objects anonymously consigned from a splendidly homely Cotswolds Manor House.
Over the years, Kime’s stylish eye has won him clients from across the celebrity and royalty circuits including HRH The Prince of Wales and John Taylor, the bass player with 1980s British glam-rock band Duran Duran, whose partner Gela is the brains behind the cult fashion label Juicy Couture.
Like most successful decorators, Kime has built his reputation on a combination of his own fabric, furniture and lighting designs and a canny talent at sourcing the right objects for the right interiors. Finally, he has run out of space and so has had to do what all great collectors hate — rationalize. It’s clear looking at the Ceylonese specimen wood and ivory-inlaid center table estimated at £15,000-£25,000 ($23,135-$38,560) and the late 18th-century Ottoman mother of pearl and tortoiseshell inlaid casket forecast at £2,000-£3,000 ($3,100-$4,625) that pattern and ornament are the main unifying themes in the Kime consignment.
The Cotswold Manor House, meanwhile, has delivered a complementary array of attractive pieces ranging from a fine oak refectory table estimated at £12,000-£18,000 ($18,500-$27,765) to a late abstract painting by Modern British master Roger Hilton which could realise £6,000-£9,000 ($9,255-$13,875).
Finally, as if to endorse the enduring popularity of the country house decorator theme, this month sees the autumn instalment of the thrice-yearly Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in Battersea Park, which is now in its 25th year. One of the more amusing objects on offer at the forthcoming fair Sept.28-Oct. 3 is a Victorian child’s carriage dated to circa 1850 that may have been used to perambulate children around the family estate. London dealers Pinn & Lennard, who are offering it at £1,600 ($2,450), inform us that it is in appropriately worn “country house” condition, retaining much of its original yellow and black paint.
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