Exhausted. Broke. Britain, after Hitler’s war was a barren and desolate landscape. But while the rest of Europe rapidly recovered, rebuilding both their shattered cities and economies, Britain lagged behind, its population having to endure food rationing – that had begun in 1940 – until 1954. The country’s economy never really got going again until the latter half of the 1980s. It might be surprising and seem ironic then that a group of paintings, drawings and sculpture representative of the prodigious output by British artists from the post-war years, together with others from the 21-year inter-war period – itself dogged by unemployment and poverty, and hit hard by the 1929 Wall Street Crash – are expected to reach a combined total of £7.2 – 10.8 m ($11.9 – 17.3m) in this forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s, London.
Born in 1878 – well before WWI during which he was a war artist – master-draughtsman, Augustus John’s, David at the Table portrays the somewhat idealised image of a haggard though handsome, wild-eyed young man in work clothes sat slumped at a plain table on which one senses there is no food and might not have been for some time. Generally considered to be the most famous British artist of his day, John himself was never short of money or commissions, however he cultivated a bohemian image inspired by his admiration for the lifestyle of gypsies. Perhaps the bluntness of Laurence Stephen Lowry’s painting, The Cripples (Political Argument) executed shortly after WWII comes closer to reality. Along with other Lowry’s it is also included in the sale.
Bridget Riley, born to middle-class London parents in 1931, would have been eight years old when war broke out in 1939. Raised in the relative safety of the west country, she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College before coming up to London to study at Goldsmiths then at The Royal College of Art. Her signature, disorientating Op Art painting style matured at the beginning of the 60s with which it and she became synonymous. At a time when the younger generation, anxious to escape the dullness and squalor of the 1950s, living in the shadow of the Cold War and of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, these paintings were said to inspire audience participation. Becoming disillusioned when her style was exploited for commercial purposes, Riley abandoned it in favour of pursuing ideas concerned with colour, in so doing backing away from the limelight. She was fifty-one when she painted the strikingly linear Praise 1 at the dawn of the 80s.
The same age as Riley, Frank Auerbach, whose gaunt work, Head of Gerda Boehm, among others is also included in the sale, was born of Jewish parentage in Berlin. Sent to England in 1939 to escape Nazism, his mother and father remained behind and perished in concentration camps. Young Frank was evacuated to Shropshire but ended up attending London’s St Martin’s School of Art and going on to the RCA, where he and Bridget Riley were contemporaries.
Painter, William Roberts, started out as a poster designer and studied at the Slade; leaving the school in 1913 he travelled in France and Italy and fought in the trenches during WWI, the sheer horror of the experience, as with many other artists who went to fight, significantly changing the direction of his work. Roberts was one of the signatories to the first issue of BLAST, the short-lived literary magazine of the Vorticist movement in Britain. He developed an interest for representing and interpreting the predominantly working class elements of metropolitan London’s everyday life and events – visits to the cinema, the dancehall but treating them with dignity and humour. Roberts’ painting:s The Boxing Match, produced between 1919-25 and The Barber’s Shop, circa 1946, along with Bath Night, 1929, are all in this sale.In contrast, Barbara Hepworth’s Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, created in 1971, only four years before the sculptor’s death and, although small in size – only 16.5 cm high, excluding black, polished stone base – is unashamedly extravagant and luxurious in use of materials.
Hepworth, from Wakefield in Yorkshire was born in 1903 to middle class parents and died in 1975; her adulthood spans much of the scope of this sale. Aged 17, not long after the Great War ended, she went to Leeds School of Art before being accepted at the RCA, soon becoming well-connected to the up-and-coming art cognescenti including sculptors Henry Moore and John Skeaping. Marrying the latter, the couple regularly exhibited together to great acclaim but drifted apart and separated in 1931. Soon after Hepworth met Ben Nicholson whom she was later to marry and to form a long-standing creative relationship with in which together they moved into abstraction. Both artists benefited enormously from forging links to the continental avant gardists – Picasso, Mondrian, Brancusi – and from those artists who fled Europe and came to England prior to WWII – Gabo, Walter Gropius, Moholy-Nagy. When the war began Hepworth and Nicholson relocated to St Ives in Cornwall where they continued to work and succeeded in their efforts to attract international attention. In the 50s, after divorcing Nicholson, Hepworth confirmed her reputation as one of Britain’s major artists producing two sculptures for 1951’s Festival of Britain and retrospective shows in Wakefield and at London’s Whitechapel. Both the 50s and 60s were good to her; Hepworth’s international stature grew. She was awarded the CBE and later, the DBE. She had a further retrospective in 1962 at the Whitechapel, became a trustee of the Tate and had a retrospective exhibition there in 1968. Barbara Hepworth died in St Ives in 1975 – her studio and garden there are now a museum administered by the Tate – after a long battle with cancer. Celebrating her achievement and named in her honour, 2011 saw the opening of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in her home town.
Sold earlier this year through Christies and significantly surpassing its estimated sale price of £70,000 – £100,000, ($112,980 – $161,400) selling at £145,000 ($236,612), the Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, sculpture is of 18 carat gold (Apparently, the best gold you can get for making precious objects, 22 carat is too soft). Deep in the current world recession, apparently far worse than that of the 30s and in post WWII Britain, and as gold prices head towards $5,000 (£3,127) an ounce, curiously in Sotheby’s Modern & Post-war British Art sale the estimated price for this piece exactly matches the earlier Christie’s estimate.
Works from top
Bridget Riley, Praise 1, circa 1981. Estimate £150,000-250,000
Augustus John OM, RA, David at the Table. Estimate £20,000-30,00
Dame Barbara Hepworth, Mincarlo: Three Curves with Strings, 1971.
Frank Auerbach, Head of Gerda Boehm, 1971. Estimate £180,000-250,000
William Roberts RA, The Barber’s Shop, circa 1946. Estimate, £70,000-100,000
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