We are grateful to Dr Frances Spalding CBE, FRSL for writing this introduction to the 20th century picture section of our Art & Design Sale on Thursday 13th February. Frances is an art historian, critic and biographer, and one the foremost experts on 20th-century British art. She was editor of The Burlington Magazine between 2015/16 and is currently a trustee of the Charleston Trust, and Emeritus Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge.
“Viewing a sale in an auction house is much like attending a party. A great deal of pleasure is gained from encounters with familiar artists or faces, but sometimes it is the surprise meeting, with a picture or a person, that most excites. One picture that stalls attention in this sale is Patrick Caulfield’s screenprint, Occasional Table (lot 496). There is nothing picturesque, seductive or intentionally pleasing about this work. And the table it presents is the kind of occasional table that will be familiar to many. Nevertheless, this picture snags the eye owing to Caulfield’s deliberately bland, impersonal and detached style. The table itself is encased in a hard-unvarying black outline. Any hint of the artist’s sensibility or individuality is deliberately suppressed. Such extreme economy of means cancels out romanticism and gives a refreshing pungency to tired visual facts, so that the green mat, on which the ashtray rests, sings out.
A similarly fierce pursuit of organisation is found in Reg Cartwright’s Still Life with Fruit and a Vase of Flowers (lot 449), but here it is motivated by the desire for the punchy simplicity of so-called ‘primitive’ art. In the past Cartwright has been compared with Henri Rousseau, a self-taught naïve artist, who worked as a custom officer and was admired by Picasso. But Cartwright’s flattening of objects and the table top nods to the significance of Cubism, and the light emanating from this painting is curiously reminiscent of Early Italian Renaissance painting. Cartwright is perhaps too knowing and sophisticated an artist to be properly regarded as a ‘primitive’, although he has shown with the Portal Gallery which specialises in work of this genre.
One artist well represented in this sale is Peter Kuhfeld. A versatile artist, he seems to be as much at home in landscape as he is with portraits or dusky interiors. The making of him appears to have been his decision to give up teaching at Rugby in order to do further study as an artist under Peter Greenham at the Royal Academy Schools. Greenham’s influence is very evident in Kuhfeld’s Daisies and plant pots against a garden wall (lot 443), not only in his subtle handling of different shades of green but also in the delicate way that the brush creates stems, grass, foliage and flowers, without any of these details destroying the unity of the whole. A similar delicacy of touch can also be found in his portrait of Antony House, Cornwall (lot 446), a fine eighteenth-century building with outhouses, now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. His responsiveness to an historical setting may explain why Prince Charles commissioned Kuhfeld to paint a panoramic record of the royal wedding when William and Kate married in Westminster Abbey.
Philip Sutton’s paintings convey a different kind of confidence, attracting the eye with their strong bright colour and expansive manner. Rich colour harmonies are also to be found in Edward Le Bas’s Early Morning Tea (Lot 286). This delightful scene is strongly reminiscent of Vuillard, a late nineteenth-century French artist who melds figures into their setting by giving much attention to the patterns and textures found in wallpapers and other materials, as Le Bas does here. His painting was exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1944, but the details within it look back to an earlier age, hence the jug in a basin on the washstand. Like Vuillard, Le Bas plays down the emphasis on the figure by turning her away from the viewer, so that her attention seems to be given entirely to the bird in the cage.
With the Fry Art Gallery nearby, in Saffron Walden, it is always interesting to see work at Cheffins by artists represented at the Fry. Its collection focuses primarily on Great Bardfield artists who gathered in and around this village, after Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden settled there. Walter Hoyle was one of these and his Head in the Garden (lot 495) has many of the qualities that associate his work with that of Bawden, who is himself represented in this sale by a pen and ink illustration to a story (lot 264). The name of Noel Coward is widely familiar and many know that he wrote songs and plays, becoming one of the highest earners as a writer in this field in his day. But it comes as a surprise to learn that he also painted. Yes, indeed, he could even bring his immense love of style to a painting of Cow Parsley (lot 302).
Another rarity is a small surreal painting titled Nocturnal Adventures by Leslie Roy Hobdell (‘Giles Farquharson’) (lot 293). It gives release to the romantic vein in twentieth-century British Art, which counters the strong leaning towards realism. Another small painting, Winter Sun, by Elinor Bellingham Smith (lot 305), likewise fulfils a need for imaginative release, into a familiar world but one transfigured by a gentle lyricism.
Look out also for Tessa Newcomb’s oil painting titled After people have gone back to school (lot 316). My guess is that it portrays Blackshore, at Southwold, where the River Blyth meets the sea and a track runs between the river and a long string of black fishermen’s huts and old boats. The foreground conveys the sudden shock of empty space when holiday makers have returned home.
One particular surprise for me was the discovery of Jean Marchand’s La Loge from 1907 (lot 374). This French artist caught the attention of Roger Fry, whose best known book, Vision and Design, includes an essay on him. Work by Marchand can also be found in the Fry Collection, in the Courtauld Gallery, London, and at Charleston, the Bloomsbury home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in Sussex. This amusing image shows four people squeezed into a box in the theatre. It is also a modern painting and seems to signal the onset of a performance – perhaps that of modernist painting, just then beginning to sweep across Europe.
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