London Eye: May 2009
Specialist art theft detectives reported this week that a 2-ton Henry Moore bronze Reclining Figure worth £3 million, stolen in December 2005 from the Henry Moore Foundation, was likely melted down at an Essex scrap merchants and the metal sold for a mere £1,500. The theft prompted a tightening of security at the Henry Moore Foundation’s 72-acre estate in Hertfordshire where numerous examples of Moore’s work remain on open air display.
A few months after the Moore theft a three-figure bronze work entitled The Watchers by Lynn Chadwick, valued at around £600,000, was stolen from the grounds of Roehampton University in south-west London. Such high-profile cases focused attention on the risks of displaying sculpture outdoors, forcing many public and private collectors to review their security arrangements.
Happily there are few such concerns at the vast rolling estate of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire where a new exhibition of open air sculpture opened this week organized by the Sladmore Gallery. The London-based Sladmore Gallery specializes in animalier sculpture and the Woburn display showcases a number of impressive large-scale examples by world famous practitioners such as Bugatti, Maillol and Rodin as well as examples by living sculptors such as Geoffrey Dashwood, Sophie Dickens and Nic Fiddian-Green. However, what makes this exhibition even more exciting is an adjoining display of mainly abstract contemporary outdoor sculpture curated by British sculptor David Worthington. This part of the exhibition demonstrates the vibrancy of British contemporary sculpture, in terms of both the rich language of forms and the diversity of materials explored by today’s artists. The show also points up an interesting contrast between the use of machine techniques and more traditional marble carving approaches
and there is plenty on view on a scale suitable for domestic gardens. Everything at the exhibition is for sale with prices ranging from £3,500 ($5,300) to £65,000 ($99,100).
Weather forecasters have been predicting a long hot summer in the UK this year, although most Brits remain stoically unconvinced, keeping their umbrellas at the ready just in case. Certainly good weather would improve the outlook for Woburn Abbey and other open air sculpture displays, which have been multiplying across the UK in recent years. Meanwhile, rather more gloomy prognostications from economic forecasters are failing to subdue the optimism of the art trade.
This week saw the opening of Josh Lilley’s new contemporary art gallery in the fashionable Fitzrovia enclave just north of Oxford Street, London’s main shopping thoroughfare. This might not seem the most auspicious moment to launch a new contemporary art gallery, but Lilley is nothing if not optimistic. He has reason to be. In March he put on a show of work by British painter Vicky Wright at VOLTA in New York and sold out completely to enthusiastic private collectors. Judging by the crowd that thronged to the launch of his new Riding Street premises in London on Thursday evening, the recession is doing little to dampen enthusiasm for reasonably priced work that is fresh and innovative.
Having already won several high-profile painting prizes, including the prestigious Jerwood Painting Prize in 2007 and the John Moores Painting Prize in 2008, some are tipping Vicky Wright as a future Turner Prize winner. Her adventurous ‘portrait’ works, which are painted on the reverse sides of mounted boards, are on sale at Josh Lilley, retailing at £4,000 ($6,000) plus VAT.
A rather more conservative event in the London art and antiques calendar in the coming weeks is the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. In keeping with most art and antiques fairs, the Grosvenor House Fair has embraced the modern and contemporary with renewed vigor in recent years, in tacit acknowledgment that traditional antiques have declined somewhat in popular appeal, at any rate among younger members of the public. When the fair began in 1934, all objects had to conform to the cutoff dateline of 1830, which marked the end of the Georgian era, and items created after that date were not permitted to be displayed. However, that dateline was removed in 1994, allowing modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, furniture and other works of art to be shown. Since then the fair has particularly strengthened its reputation for showing Modern British art and more recently has incorporated new disciplines such as fine wine and photography, contemporary design, and modern and contemporary objets.
One might have expected to see a decline in antiquities collecting given the various controversies and restrictions in this section of the market in recent years. But there will always remain plenty of opportunities for the more responsible members of the trade who adhere to strict rules of provenance. This is certainly the case with Charles Ede Ltd., one of London’s most prestigious dealers in ancient works of art. Managing director James Ede has long been an advocate of a more open and self-regulating trade and is fastidious about checking the background of the pieces he handles. His next exhibition, entitled Vita Romana (Roman Life) runs at his London gallery at 20, Brook Street W1 from June 16 to July 17 and features 30 carefully selected pieces ranging in price from £1,000 ($1,500) to £500,000 ($765,000). “The exhibition shows the full range of Roman art and artefacts, including not only public and private sculptures but also objects used in everyday life,” said Ede.
One of the most bewitching functional objects in the exhibition is a bronze balsamarium, a container for holding ointments or oils, in the form of a bust of Antinous, dating from the second century. Antinous, a handsome Greek boy, was the close companion and probably the lover of the Emperor Hadrian. After Antinous drowned in the River Nile in A.D. 130 the grief-stricken Emperor had him proclaimed a god and temples were built for his worship and festivals held in his honour. The 7-inch-high balsamarium depicts Antinous with his hair dressed in heavy curls and a deer skin thrown over his shoulder. It is the sort of piece that would not have been out of place at the British Museum’s recent Hadrian exhibition.
Tom Flynn is a London-based writer and journalist. His monograph on British sculptor Sean Henry has just been published by Scala.