See All Ads

Letter from London

Ian McKay | May 12th, 2013

Ian McKay,

Time passes, as they say, and in preparing this month’s reports I became only too aware that a few clocks I meant to include in earlier “Letters” were still on my files. Those clocks were accompanied in the waiting room by Chinese works of art sold in the last weeks of the old year and by some Meissen porcelain from the first of the Said Marouf sales at Bonhams.

The clocks I have somewhat reluctantly decided to discard at this late date, but the Chinese works of art, or at least what remained after some savage pruning, do get into this month’s selection. As the second Marouf sale will have taken place by the time this issue is published, I have decided to hold the Meissen; and the two Marouf sales, along with more Meissen from the Delphinium Collection, another Bonhams sale, will be covered next month.

One much more modestly priced interesting ceramics sale from the very end of the 2012 season, the Tom Walford collection of creamwares, does find a little space in this month’s reports, where it is joined by a long neglected Moonstone, an “indispensable” wooden writing globe and an aesthetic salon table, an Italian lady of fashion, more Grosvenor School prints, and an Orientalist offering.

The $844,245 Moonstone, as photographed for the Bonhams London auction and as seen outside the consignors’ home in the 1960’s.

From Pebble to Moonstone: Underfoot but Undervalued No More

Known for many years in the family as “The Pebble,” but just over eight feet wide and weighing in at around three-quarters of a ton, a 1000-year-old carved granite Moonstone from Sri Lanka that has spent several decades now in English gardens caused something of a sensation when offered for sale at Bonhams on April 23.

The Sandakada pahana, also known as the Moonstone, is a feature unique to the architecture of ancient Sri Lanka. It is an elaborately carved semicircular stone slab, usually placed at the bottom of staircases and entrances in Buddhist temples, and is first known in the latter part of the Anuradhapura period, which ran from the 4th century B.C. to the 11th century A.D.

One of seven recorded examples, the stone offered in London is of what was at the time of its making a standardised design. The half lotus in the centre is enclosed by several concentric bands, the first featuring a procession of swans, followed by a band with an intricate foliage design known as liyavel. The third band shows a procession of carved elephants, lions, horses, and bulls, while the fourth and outermost is a band of flames.

The Moonstone was sent to London for sale from the garden of a house in Devon, but the consignor, Bronwyn Hickmott, who had known and loved “The Pebble” from childhood, had first removed it from her family home in another English county, Sussex, before taking it with her on each subsequent move.

But how did such an important archaeological item end up in a Sussex garden in the first place?

Today, Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of renovated and restored monuments and buildings, but following its decline in the 11th century, it was gradually reclaimed and overwhelmed by the jungle. A plan to restore, clean, and rebuild the ancient site began as early as 1890, but while large areas of Anuradhapura were slowly cleared and ruins uncovered, much remained undisturbed.

In a chapter on Anuradhapura in a monograph on Ceylon written in 1950, local inhabitant Harry Williams wrote: “despite the wealth of ruins disclosed, cleaned and restored by the devoted labours of the archaeological department, the surrounding jungle for miles in all directions teems with the undisclosed secrets…it is possible to wander many miles in any direction and stumble upon fallen monoliths, broken masonry, soil still red from brickdust and granite slabs half buried in soil….”

The Moonstone seems to have been one of these relics that was removed in the early or mid-20th century.

Brackenhill, Bronwyn Hickmott’s childhood home in Crowborough, had once been the home of William Murdoch Thyne (1878-1949), a Scottish civil engineer who from 1915 to 1937 worked in what was then still called Ceylon in the western world. Responsible for the design and construction of many large reservoir and dam projects, he is recorded as having used elephants for the lifting of heavy masonry at Labugama Dam—so the initial task of moving this decorative slab of granite and getting it shipped back to England may have been accomplished without too much difficulty.

For their auction of Indian and Islamic arts, Bonhams valued the stone at $30,000/45,000, but come sale day a very different level of interest and bidding was seen.

The Moonstone was sold in the end for $844,245 and Bronwyn Hickmott told reporters after the sale, “We had been turned away by other international auction houses as well as television antiques shows. Everyone pooh-poohed our belief that the stone was special. It was only Sam’s [Bonhams of Exeter representative Sam Tuke] determination to research the stone that has led to this happy result. We are thrilled.”

Sri Lankan archaeological authorities may, of course, be less pleased about the sale, but it would be interesting to learn who actually bought the Moonstone.

Sold for $6080 as part of the Walford creamware collection was this tureen of 1770-80. Of double-walled form and with intricately pierced panels to alternating panels of its 12 fluted sides, foot, and stand, it is an example of the Melbourne wares that Walford believes were probably made in Yorkshire, but which are yet to be firmly attributed. The stand is chipped and the cover restored.

The Cream of the Walford Collection

The focus of a British pottery collection formed by London financier Tom Walford, and sold at Bonhams on December 18, 2012, was creamware. Walford began collecting in the 1960’s and continued to study and classify these earthenwares with their pale coloured glazes and varied styles of coloured decoration that were made across the whole of Britain from the 18th century onwards.

Walford, who had initially studied law and qualified as a barrister, but never practised, was introduced to the subject through the gift of a book on creamware by its author and his near neighbour, Donald Towner. Having decided to collect creamware, he used Towner’s book to look for similar pieces.

In the 1960’s, creamware was plentiful, but there was competition for the most interesting pieces—especially from Alistair Sampson, who was then a successful barrister and formed a substantial collection that was sold in 1967. Towner’s collection, too, was sold in 1968 but Walford inherited his friend’s notebooks, archives, and research materials, which he used to support his own lifelong study.

Walford bought things at auction and continued to haunt London’s Portobello Road, where a certain up-and-coming ceramics dealer, Jonathan Horne, then had a stall. Over the succeeding decades, as creamware moved in and out of fashion, Walford continued to collect, to investigate, and to study the subject. In this investigative and academic pursuit, he bought in quantity and, if pieces added to his understanding and attempts to classify and define, or aided the research that he published in the Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, he did not mind if his acquisitions were restored or indeed damaged.

At auction, of course, such things are viewed differently, and many of the lots in his sale at Bonhams contained more than one item. Such an arrangement tends to appeal more to dealers than collectors, but there were a good many things offered separately in this sale, and four of them are illustrated and briefly described here.

Another double-walled piece, this Yorkshire creamware teapot with bright green and purple decoration dates from 1775-80. It sold at $5270.

Probably a “North Eastern” piece, possibly from the North Hylton Pottery, this mug of 1770-80 is decorated with a coal barge or Newcastle keelboat, and the legend, “Phillip Reed Master / Metter of Maldon,” refers to the practice of transporting coal from Newcastle, down the east coast of England to Maldon, on the River Blackwater in Essex. A metter, or coal meter, was a customs officer whose job was to certify coal for the purpose of collecting customs duties. The mug sold for $4055.

One of the earlier pieces in the sale, this coffee cup dates to 1745-48 and is a product of Samuel Bell’s factory at Newcastle-under-Lyme (which, for U.S. readers, is in Staffordshire, not Northumberland). The distinctive shape provides a significant link between porcelain manufacture at Limehouse and Bell’s earthenware manufactory. It sold at $5675.

An unusual 19th-century globe-secrétaire, possibly of Austrian manufacture but based on an English model, which sold for $56,360 at Christie’s South Kensington in February.

The Armchair Globetrotter’s Indispensable Appendage

The parcel-gilt mahogany and satinwood globe-secrétaire seen here is a 19th-century piece which sold at Christie’s South Kensington on February 27, where it was part of the contents of the recently closed business of Ross Hamilton, who in 1973 opened one of what were to be the many antique shops sited in London’s Pimilico Road.

It is based on an exceptionally rare Regency model, known as the “Pitt’s Cabinet Globe Writing Table” and named for William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), who became Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister at the age of 24 and served in that office for most of his life.

Invented by a George Remington but produced by the London cabinetmakers Morgan & Sanders, who specialised in such metamorphic furnishings, their combined terrestrial globe and writing desk was advertised with the boast: “This writing table, which must be acknowledged equally convenient and superb, is likely to become an indispensable appendage to the library of every person of taste in the fashionable world.”

Similar examples were made in other European countries, notably in Austria, which is thought likely to be the origin of this example. It is closely related to one with very similar internal configuration and parquetry “brickwork” decoration that was sold five years ago by Sotheby’s Amsterdam, but its external decoration, said the cataloguer, is almost identical to that of one stamped Morgan & Sanders (to the lockplate) that was sold by Sotheby’s in 1995 as part of the Luton Hoo collections of Sir Harold Wernher.

Either way, it is a most unusual piece, its working components including a red leather writing surface and ten small drawers, plus two additional drawers fitted to the lower section of the globe. It sold for $56,360 to a Middle Eastern buyer.

An Orientalist Offering

The Austrian/Viennese link continues with this work by Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), the leading Orientalist painter of the Austrian school. After first attending at the Vienna Academy, he moved to Paris, where he studied with the history painter Jean-Paul Laurens. Deutsch began his regular travels to Egypt in 1883 and stuck to the academic realism path from then on.

The Offering shows four figures approaching the entrance to what we must presume is a palace, guarded by a heavily armed Nubian. One of the figures, a servant, is carrying the gifts they bring—among them a Qajar gold overlaid helmet. Deutsch painted an undated, second version of this painting that is now in a private collection, but this 1897 original was acquired three years later from an Edinburgh dealer and had remained with purchaser’s family until this time. Valued at up to $1 million in a Sotheby’s Orientalist sale of April 23 that ran to just 23 lots, it accounted for about a third of the overall sale total in selling at $3,289,490.

The Coleman Aesthetic Movement table, sold for $60,660 by Bonhams, and one of the inset Minton panels.

A photograph of J.P. Morgan’s Madison Avenue drawing-room in which this very table—or one very like it—appears in a bay window.

Was This Table in J. Pierpont Morgan’s Madison Avenue Drawing-Room?

 In 1880, John Pierpont Morgan acquired a new residence on the corner of 36th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City, where he intended to display his works of art collections and host enormous parties. To furnish the drawing-room, which ran the entire length of the Madison Avenue side of the building, he engaged the firm of Christian Herter, and in the photograph reproduced below, in the bay window in the right foreground, appears a very similar, if not the identical table to that illustrated here.

Designed by William S. Coleman, it is an Aesthetic Movement salon table of circa 1875, the carved and gilt incised ebonised wood frame inset to the four drop-leaves with Minton roundels painted with female portraits and to the top with a large plaque in which cherubs circle a bird. The undertier is also inset with a panel depicting a single cherub.

Around this time, there was a great deal of cooperation between British and American designers and craftsmen, and examples of furnishings by the Herter Brothers that incorporate Minton plaques, especially the pâte-sur-pâte variety, are recorded. It is not known, however, if Herter executed the frame and then inset the Coleman plaques, or whether the whole thing was made in England and shipped across the Atlantic. The roundel reproduced here does appear to be the one just barely visible in the photograph.

From April to July 2011, the table was exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a show called The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 and from September 2011 to January 2012 was to be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, in an exhibition called Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde.

At Bonhams on April 17, the table was sold for $60,660.

“Esiste La Signorina Grandi Firme?”

Essevi ceramic figures designed by Sandro Vacchetti have appeared in these pages before—most recently in last July’s issue—but not the model seen here, “Signorina Grandi Firme” of 1939, and none at this price level, $31,535 at a Bonhams decorative arts auction of April 19.

Hand on hip and trailing a fox stole behind her, she sports a tight green A-line skirt and cropped box jacket with a vibrant orange, yellow, and green design to the black ground that is complemented by a similarly designed white hat. Black gloves and shoes complete the whole exotic ensemble.

The catalogue description, to which I owe some of my apparent ease and familiarity in describing a lady’s wardrobe, says that her stockings are seamed, but while that detail is not visible in this photograph of the ceramic figure, those seams are clearly visible in the cover illustration to the April 21, 1938, issue of the magazine Le Grandi Firme (The Big Names or The Big Labels—today’s Designer Labels?) that is reproduced here and which presumably inspired Vacchetti’s version.

This popular Italian magazine was published in the years 1924 to 1939, but it was in the later years of its existence that it became lighter in tone and featured glamorous models in cover illustrations by Gino Boccasile and Rino Albertarelli. The April cover that asks the question “Esiste La Signorina Grandi Firme?’ is the work of Boccasile.

In this cover, she wears a red patterned skirt and is walking across a flower-strewn path towards a battery of photographers and another sign which reads “Benvenuta A Cinecitta,” welcoming her to the now legendary home of Italian cinema.

The just over 18" high figure shows some restorations.

Just over 6" long, this pair of cloisonné enamel models of rams with riders, bearing Qianlong marks and of the period, sold for $730,685 at Christie’s on November 6, 2012. These are giant rams, and my own experience of grumpy, bad-tempered rams living locally suggests that ram riding might be a perilous, unrewarding pastime and best avoided— especially if facing the animal’s rear end!

Back to China—At Last

It was in the January issue of M.A.D., in illustrating a couple of Chinese musical instruments, one of them a Dehua porcelain flute that made a wholly unexpected $289,910 as part of the Peter and Nancy Thompson collection sold by Sotheby’s on November 7, 2012, that I promised “more Chinese works of art in next month’s column.”

To anyone whose hopes were dashed by the silence that followed, I apologise. The piece on Tretchikoff’s famous Chinese Girl painting that appeared in last month’s “Letter” hardly qualifies, but this month I have managed to squeeze in eight pieces from the many Chinese art sales held in London and the provinces in the last weeks of the old year.

An analysis of these sales by Roland Arkell published in the U.K. weekly Antiques Trade Gazette showed some high-profile failures in the London rooms, where totals (including those for Japanese art sales) were well down on last year’s figures and selling rates varied from 55% (at a Christie’s sale of November 6) to the 92% achieved at the abovementioned Thompson sale at Sotheby’s. And the best result by far was achieved in a country salesroom—see accompanying caption stories.

The Chinese art market may have become less frenzied and bidding more considered and selective in the last year or two—a result, according to Arkell, of changing conditions inside China, where “credit in Mainland China is no longer flowing as it once was” to fuel the collecting desires of the new buyers, and an increasing difficulty, after the many major sales of the past decade, of finding “privately consigned material at the right price.”

Nevertheless, writes Arkell, “when the first principles of the auction business are not forgotten—the right items, privately entered, well provenanced and with sensible estimates—then the bullish mood of 2009 quickly returns.”

The items illustrated here all fall into that category.

“Treasures of the Qing Court” was a November 7, 2012, Sotheby’s London sale which offered just 22 items from the Chinese art collections of Cameel and Hoda Halim of Chicago, the proceeds of which will benefit the museum that they are founding in Chicago, where they have lived and worked as property developers since leaving Egypt almost 40 years ago. The Halims bought heavily at the 2004 Sotheby’s sale of the Rockford Time Museum—acquiring around one-third of the collection in all—and timepieces, along with stained glass, will be the focus of the museum when it opens later this year, but the Halims’ interest in Chinese arts had not been limited to clocks made for the Chinese market.

The prize item in the London sale was this 11¼" high, delicately coloured and enamelled “Magpie and Prunus” moon flask, bearing the Qianlong mark and of the period (1736-95), which sold for a double estimate $1,682,055 to an Asian dealer. Inspired in form and design by blue and white prototypes of the Yongle reign (1403-24) in the Ming Dynasty, the design proved popular in the 18th century and was copied in both underglaze blue and red, but, wrote Chinese ceramics specialist Regina Krahl in a catalogue note, “the polychrome rendition of the design on the present flask…is highly unusual and no comparable example appears to be recorded.

“Famille rose, or fencai, decoration incorporating any underglaze cobalt blue in the overall colour scheme is exceedingly rare, and on the present flask, under- and overglaze colours are admirably entwined to form a harmonious picture.” In this complex process, the blue prunus stems, part of the magpie’s plumage and other blue design elements would have been painted onto the raw white porcelain body before firing and glazing and the polychrome enamels added afterwards to complete the design.

Not all the high fliers appear in the London rooms nowadays, and Tennants, whose auction base is in Leyburn (Yorkshire), set a house record when this Ming Dynasty blue and white bottle vase was sold for $4,895,680 on November 16, 2012. Found by Rodney Tennant during a routine house visit, where he was told by the vendor that it had luckily escaped damage when knocked over by a cat, it was originally thought to be a copy made during the reign of Daoguang (1820-50). As such, it was reckoned to be worth $30,000/50,000, but others believed it to be a true, early 18th-century piece, just as the Yongzheng (1722-36) mark on the base proclaimed, and sale day saw two of the many telephone bidders contest it to that much, much higher sum.

Once part of the collections of the distinguished scholar and collector Sir Percival David, and valued at $30,000/50,000 by Sotheby’s in a November 7, 2012, sale, this grey pottery jar, dating to the Eastern Zhou Dynasty/Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) went on to sell for $1,176,670 to an Asian dealer. What made this 10¼" high vessel exceptional is a poem, dated 1769, that is incised around the inside of the neck and rim. Yong Taozun (Song for a Pottery Zun Wine Vessel) was composed by the Qianlong emperor and its eight five-character lines read, in translation:



“Potter’s clay successfully formed this zun,
No different than if cut out of the earth intact!
Arrayed in antiquity with wooden and bamboo vessels,
It had the same origin as very agriculture itself.
Lifting it to drink, I look loftily into the distance,
But, for the way it looks, have nothing to say,
Though the ‘Ancestor Ding’ and ‘Father Yi’ vessels,
It’s immediately obvious, are its direct descendants.”

It’s not exactly great poetry and, after the initial expressions of veneration, it seems somehow to lose impetus in the second part. But then perhaps it has lost something in translation and works much better in the original. What really matters is that little imperial poem, which seems to have done the financial trick.

Believed to mate for life, the wild goose came to symbolise marital fidelity, peace and prosperity in Chinese art, though its skills in formation flying also saw it linked with military tactics and, from 1527 until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, a goose was thought appropriate to identify fourth-rank officials! Bought in 1976 from leading London dealers, Spinks, the 18th- or 19th-century white jade geese box and cover seen at left, getting on for 7" wide overall, was sold for $337,495 as part of a separately catalogued, 26-lot English collection of jade carvings offered by Bonhams on November 8, 2012. This was a triple estimate result in an otherwise patchy sale, but on the same day a ten times estimate bid of $481,280 was taken on the close to 7" high jade carving of a popular subject, a luohan in his grotto, seen at right. An 18th-century piece, it was one of 20 lots from a Canadian collection assembled in the 1960’s and in this instance one of several items acquired at the Jade House in Hong Kong. All came with their original receipts, showing that this carving had cost Can$3500 in 1969.

Strikingly simple and modern-looking for their age—for some reason, I found myself thinking of the chair designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh as I wrote those words—the huanghuali armchairs seen here actually date from the 17th century. The term huanghuali literally means “yellow flowering pear” wood and indicates a member of the rosewood family. The chair on the left is one of a pair of a type known as guanmao yi, or “official hat-shaped chairs,” for their resemblance to the winged hats that formed part of the formal attire of Ming Dynasty officials. Such chairs were associated with high status in Chinese society and today they are associated with very high sums. The pair of guanmao yi chairs sold for a ten times estimate $1,355,820 at Sotheby’s on November 7, 2012, while on the same day a pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, known as quanyi—one seen on the right—sold for $481,850. Both pairs were acquired in the mid-1950’s by Dr. J.H. Zeeman, who was at the time Chargé d’Affaires at the Dutch Embassy in Beijing.

Racing, a linocut printed in orange, red, viridian, and blue, is a Sybil Andrews work of 1934 that sold for $71,735. In the years 1929 to 1937, Andrews and Cyril Power collaborated on a series of posters for London Transport, and the sweeping rhythm of this linocut bears a strong resemblance to a poster advertising the Epsom Derby and issued in the 1930’s.

Grosvenor School Achieves Top Marks Once Again

It was in last June’s issue of M.A.D. that I first took note of the high prices currently being paid for British linocuts of the 1920’s and ’30’s, known collectively as Grosvenor School prints after the London art school at which Claude Flight, an inspiring teacher, urged his pupils and admirers “to capture the ceaseless rhythms of contemporary living through energetic abstracted designs.”

In that month’s “Letter from London,” I illustrated just three examples from what was a very successful Bonhams sale—one each by Flight, Sybil Andrews and the Australian artist Ethel Louis Spowers. That sale obviously drew in a great more sale entries for Bonhams, and another auction of avant-garde British printmaking, held on April 16 of this year, included many more Grosvenor School works by the same artists.

There was another example of the Speedway linocut by Andrews that I had illustrated in my 2012 report, but while I have not illustrated her three motorcycle riders again this time, which sold for $121,340, I have indulged my liking for these linocuts to a far greater extent and illustrate no fewer than seven of these exciting linocuts in all.

Whence and Whither? is, like Tube Station, inspired by the London Underground system. The Grosvenor School artists were preoccupied with “urban experience in all its mechanized tumult and electrifying diversity” and in this orange, viridian, and dark and light blue linocut, Cyril Power depicts one of the escalators that take passengers underground to the trains. It sold at $148,900 to the buyer of Tube Station.

The London Underground system, familiarly known as “The Tube,” is the subject of this linocut of circa 1932 by Cyril Power. Signed, titled, and numbered 60/60 in pencil at the bottom of the image, Tube Station sold at $93,780—just short of the $96,380 paid for this print in last summer’s Lockdales sale. The greens, ochres, blues, and browns of the station interior contrast with the bright red of the tube train itself.

One of my personal favourites in the Bonhams sale was The Rain Cloud, a more traditional 1931 linocut by Ethel Spowers printed in green, yellow ochre, viridian, black, and mauve. Though numbered 20/30, this is in fact the highest recorded number on any of the recorded impressions. (It seems that Spowers may not have printed the full edition.) It sold for $75,405 to a U.S. buyer.


In his 1927 Lino-Cuts manual, Claude Flight expressed the somewhat idealistic wish that linocuts would be intentionally scaled to modest living quarters and “could be sold, if only the interest in and the demand for them could be stimulated, at a price which is equivalent to that paid by the average man for his daily beer or his cinema ticket.” Some Utopian hope! Even at the time they were produced, the prints were affordable only by the better off, the middle and upper classes, and today are affordable to even fewer. Street Singers, one of an edition of 50 linocuts of 1925, is priced at three guineas (say $12 at the time) on a piece of paper attached to the lower edge, but at Bonhams this print for which no other auction outings are recorded sold for $121,340.

Cyril Power’s Speed Trial, a linocut printed in blue and viridian, celebrates Malcolm Campbell’s world land speed record run of 246 mph in his car Bluebird at Daytona Beach in 1931. Signed, titled, and numbered 7/60 in pencil, it sold at $112,155. My colleague Alex Capon, in an excellent and much more detailed report on this sale for the U.K. weekly Antiques Trade Gazette, notes that in June of last year, a provincial salesroom, Lockdales of Ipswich (Suffolk), saw another example of this print sell for $171,340—a record for Power and indeed any Grosvenor School print.

The penultimate lot to be offered in the Bonhams sale, but one of the most successful, The Giant Stride by Ethel Spowers was sold to a New York bidder at $130,530. The children swinging and swirling around a maypole in this linocut on buff laid tissue are printed in strong colours against a yellow ochre background.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

comments powered by Disqus