ART MARKET / Best of British, going cheap: Once the most fashionable works money could buy, 18th-century British paintings are now the most affordable. Geraldine Norman reports

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 09 July 1994 23:02

ONE OF the most famous - one might almost say infamous - paintings of the 18th century is coming up for sale at Sotheby's on Wednesday, a half-length Gainsborough portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wearing a huge hat with an ostrich feather.

The portrait made the second highest price ever recorded for a painting at Christie's in 1876, when Agnew's, the Bond Street dealers, bought it for pounds 10,605 - Holman Hunt's Shadow of the Cross had sold for pounds 11,000 two years before. It was stolen from Agnew's window three days later and, despite ransom demands, accompanied by strips cut from the painting, Agnew's did not get it back until 1901 - when it was sold to the American millionaire J Pierpont Morgan for pounds 32,000 despite the damage. It has been sent for sale by Morgan's granddaughter.

In its day the Gainsborough was as much of a saleroom sensation as the Van Gogh portrait of Dr Gachet for which Ryoei Saito paid pounds 43.1m in May 1990 - still the highest price on record for any work of art. According to contemporary accounts of the 1876 sale, the whole of King Street, where Christie's was and is located, was blocked with carriages which overflowed into St James's Square. Sotheby's is modestly estimating that Georgiana will sell for between pounds 200,000 and pounds 300,000 this time.

Her return to auction underlines the extent to which 18th-century British pictures, once the most glamorous and fashionable works money could buy, are now a modestly priced backwater. Sotheby's has a sale called 'British Paintings 1500-1850' next Wednesday while Christie's offers 'British Pictures' on Thursday. Both contain some beautiful paintings, accessibly estimated. There are four distinct types of picture on offer; portraits, sporting paintings, marine views and landscapes - a very succinct summary of our aristocratic ancestors' interests in life. Next to their relations, they loved their horses - there are hunting and racing pictures; as islanders, they were addicted to the sea and proud of Britain's maritime supremacy; they lived much of the year in the country and loved the British landscape.

Today the market for these works is mainly limited to British and American buyers - we have never been able to persuade Continentals that the British knew how to paint.

The Americans tend to buy the most expensive examples that come on the market while the British lap up the rest. Prices for early British pictures have been very weak since the art market crash of 1990, though there have been signs of recovery in the past six months.

In his historical analysis of the picture market, The Economics of Taste, the late Gerald Reitlinger pointed out that British 18th-century portraits were the most fashionable and expensive paintings in the world from the 1850s to the 1930s. The Depression followed by war killed off the market and in the post-war years the French Impressionists and followers have become the most fashionable and expensive artists.

Sotheby's is probably right to place a conservative estimate on Georgiana. Her price in 1876 was, according to Reitlinger, an aberration, based largely on the romantic fame of the Duchess herself - for Georgiana was the Princess Di of her day. She too was the daughter of Earl Spencer, was brought up at Althorp and was married at 17 to the Duke of Devonshire; she became the darling of society and was the chief supporter of the great Whig politician of the day, Charles James Fox.

While the Earl of Dudley and Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild competed with Agnew's for possession of the portrait in 1876, knowledgeable connoisseurs doubted the attribution to Gainsborough and suggested that it was a copy of the full-length one at Althorp - now in the National Gallery, Washington - which had been cut down. According to Reitlinger it 'had been bought in the 1850s from a picture restorer, named Bentley, for pounds 63. Bentley had reduced it to a half-length, because the duchess had already been deprived of her feet in order to accommodate her to the modest mantelpiece of a Mrs Magennis, a schoolmistress, who, strange to say, had bought the huge thing at auction in 1839 for pounds 50.'

While Georgiana is, unquestionably, the curiosity of next week's sales, the two finest examples of the British portrait school are at Christie's - Zoffany's Portrait of George Fitzgerald with his sons George and Charles, a wonderful family scene in a landscape, and Wright of Derby's John Whetham of Kirklington. Both paintings were in a Sotheby's sale in 1990 and the collector who bought them has died - he didn't even have time to clean the pictures. The Zoffany made pounds 902,000 in 1990 and Christie's is suggesting it will make about half that price; there was less competition for the Wright which made pounds 418,000, a figure which Christie's hopes to match or improve on.

The delight of the Zoffany is the two young boys, one of them flying a kite, while a faithful dog watches from the sidelines; it is not so much a portrait as a very attractive genre scene, painted with tremendous skill. John Whetham, Wright of Derby's subject, chose to be painted in fancy dress - a coat and hat trimmed with fur and a bright yellow waistcoat; he is shown standing in a cave, holding a spear, while a charming landscape is glimpsed through the cave's mouth. Three versions of the portrait were painted; one with a dog instead of a landscape was bought by the Getty Museum of California at Christie's in 1985 for pounds 418,000.

These two paintings are masterpieces - but there are many attractive works at much lower prices. A Gainsborough half-length of a powdered beauty, Dorothea, Lady Eden, was bought by the same collector at Sotheby's in 1990 for pounds 68,000 and is now estimated at pounds 40,000-pounds 60,000. Christie's also has a couple of attractive half-lengths by Reynolds estimated at pounds 7,000-pounds 12,000.

Sporting pictures have the most international following - racing is popular the world over, while the American designer Ralph Lauren has made the 'English look', which always incorporates sporting pictures, popular from Tokyo to Detroit. In the 1980s speculators and businessmen drove prices sky high and the market is still recovering from the subsequent crash. Good examples are selling again but nobody much wants the minor ones. Sotheby's has an 1845 view of the Ascot races painted in collaboration by Herring and Pollard, two of the great names of the genre, which they hope will fetch pounds 200,000- pounds 300,000. It also has an extraordinary painting of birds by the sporting artist Philip Reinagle, estimated at pounds 50,000-pounds 70,000; it is 14ft wide and was painted as a ceiling decoration for the Earl Fitzwilliam's stately home in Yorkshire, Wentworth Woodhouse. Sotheby's has not been able to work out what is going on but titled it The King Eagle Pursued to the Sun by a Multitudinous Flock of Birds. Christie's has a portrait of a racehorse in his stable painted for Sir Nathaniel Curzon in 1755 by Nathaniel Hone which they expect to reach pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000 - it comes from the Curzon family and has never been on the market before.

Marine pictures are still mainly bought by yachtsmen and those directly involved with the sea. Both auctioneers held specialised marine sales earlier in the year and only have a handful of pictures next week. Sotheby's expert, David Moore-Gwyn, points out that an identifiable view sharply increases the price that collectors will pay; he has an 1811 Thomas Luny of Merchant Briggs and a Cutter Entering Crookhaven, County Cork estimated at pounds 12,000-pounds 15,000 on the assumption that an Irish collector will pay a premium for it.

Moore-Gwyn says landscapes are the easiest of all 18th-century pictures to sell - so few were painted. The great explosion of British landscape painting came in the 19th century.

Christie's has a ravishing panoramic view of Lake Ullswater from Gowbarrow Park, painted by Julius Caesar Ibbetson around 1800, estimated at pounds 20,000-pounds 30,000 while Sotheby's offers a fascinating gamble: a view of the Thames valley from the studio of Jan Siberechts (1627-1703), the father of British landscape painting, which is so covered in dirt that you can't tell whether it's all by a studio assistant or partly by the master. The estimate is only pounds 6,000-pounds 8,000. -

(Photographs omitted)

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