Paintings of a Dutch girl quietly enjoying her morning caffeine hit by Liotard and a gyrfalcon restored to fine feather are among recent notable sales
Huon Mallalieu wakes up and smells Liotard’s coffee
WELL, that didn’t take long. On May 18, I discussed here a 19thcentury painting of a gyrfalcon that had been estimated at £150 in a country auction before selling for £5,900. The unattributed 291 ⁄ 2in by 241 ⁄ 2in canvas was not in the best condition and, because of the treatment of down and feathers and what seemed to be a particular shade of mossy green, I tentatively suggested Richard Ansdell as the painter. However, I did say that the green might be due to discoloured varnish and could appear different when cleaned—and, indeed, that proves to be the case.
The painting resurfaced in much healthier condition at Christie’s on July 13 ( Fig 1), where the cataloguers probably correctly preferred an attribution to Joseph Wolf (1820–99), a Prussian who settled in London after the revolutionary year of 1848. He illustrated gyrfalcons for Gould’s Birds of Great Britain. The judgment of peers who knew their hawks from their handsaws was evidently also the opinion of the market.
Landseer called him ‘the best all-round animal painter who ever lived’ and the young Archibald Thorburn, who visited his studio and painted early works under his influence, considered his paintings ‘not only faultless as regards truth to nature’, but possessed of ‘an indescribable feeling of movement never attained by any other artist’. This time, the painting sold for £45,000.
Passing mention of Landseer brings me to the last lot in the Sotheby’s Old Masters day sale, his 101 ⁄ 2in by 12in oil sketch on panel of a Highland landscape. There was nothing much to it: trees on the farther bank of a fast-flowing river—which looked to my inexperienced eye to be a good salmon pool—and a hint of hills beyond. A typically Scottish sky. All simply, swiftly, painted, with little detail, but much description
( Fig 3).
Landseer was a master of such oil sketches, which mostly, but not all, date from early in his career. No date was offered for this one and no provenance other than that it had been bought by an American collector from a London gallery in 2002. It sold
for a mid-estimate £25,000 and I would love to have it on my wall.
The most expensive painting in Sotheby’s 45-lot evening Old Master session accounted for about a quarter of the total take, making £4,405,000. It was a justly famous oil painting by Jean-etienne Liotard (1702– 89) and it had remained in the same family since being bought in the artist’s sale at Christie’s in 1773. The buyer then was Liotard’s friend and patron William Ponsonby, Viscount Duncannon and Earl of Bessborough, with whom he had travelled to Constantinople in 1738.
The 183 ⁄ 4in by 153 ⁄ 8in painting showing a Dutch girl taking her morning coffee ( Fig 2) was on loan to the National Gallery between 2002 and 2015 and exhibited in the recent Royal Academy Liotard show. As demonstrated by his sale, which included his collections along with his own works, Liotard was a great admirer of Dutch painting, such as the church interior hanging behind the girl. All the other elements—furniture, foot warmer, coffee service and costume—are Dutch, so the work was probably painted in about 1772 during his second visit to the Netherlands.
Not coffee but beer was the fuel that powered John Piper’s 143 ⁄ 4in by 191 ⁄ 8in Still Life (Collage) ( Fig 4), which sold for £25,000 in a Modern British and Irish session at Christie’s. It was painted in 1933 during Piper’s comparatively shortlived flirtation with Cubism as a member of the Seven and Five Society, founded in 1919. The numbers referred to painter and sculptor members and, originally, it had promoted traditionalist values, proposing ‘that there has of late been too much pioneering along too many lines in altogether too much of a hurry’. However, by 1933 when Piper joined, it was being steered in a different direction by Modernists. It staged an entirely abstract exhibition in 1935 and Piper departed.
Strangely, the Christie’s catalogue referred to the collage as ‘enigmatic’, although it is plainly an appreciative impression of a bar, with pint pot, bottles and dartboard, not to mention the collage element, and, indeed, has usually been called Public Bar in its exhibiting history.
Matthew Paton, who has done the publicity for London Art Week, very acutely pointed out to me that one of the drawings in Stephen Ongpin’s exhibition ‘Drawing Inspiration: Sketches and Sketchbook Pages of the 19th and 20th centuries’ neatly encapsulated the whole week.
It was a 163 ⁄ 4in by 103 ⁄ 8in charcoal Nue debout de profil by Amedeo Modigliani (1884– 1920, Fig 5). An elegant, 20thcentury work, it took its inspiration from ancient Cycladic figurines, with a passing nod to African primal carvings. Mr Ongpin’s show was as appealing as it was successful.
Apropos of very little, how Modigliani would have relished Samantha Cameron’s features and, more so still, the head of Winifred Knights, whose Renaissance-modernist paint- ings are enjoying a well-deserved show at Dulwich Picture Gallery—perhaps Knights based her look on Modigliani? Next week Tractors and a rescued hero
Fig 1 left: Joseph Wolf’s gyrfalcon. £45,000. Fig 2 right: Dutch girl taking morning coffee by Jean-etienne Liotard. £4,405,000. Fig 3 below: Landseer oil sketch of a Highland landscape. £ 25,000
Fig 4 far left: Still Life (Collage) by John Piper. £ 25,000. Fig 5 left: Nude debout de profil by Modigliani. With Stephen Ongpin Fine Art