For may people the mere mention of the Victorian Art era conjures up images of terribly uninspiring chocolate box worthy narrative scenes, and utterly awful reproduction “brown” furniture. Regardless of the fact that there is far more to the Victorian era than the clichés that have come to characterize the period, Victorian art continues to struggle to shake it’s bad image. The good news is that the market for what has been an unfashionable collecting category has improved significantly over the last few years, as has the image of the entire period. There is, however, still a long way to go before the work of the many fantastic Victorian artists who have languished in obscurity for so many years are given the recognition they deserve. An upside of this situation is that there is an opportunity for investors to take advantage of an undervalued sector of the market, and for collectors/connoisseurs to potentially immortalize themselves in the art world by becoming patrons of the period.
A number of factors, which I shall discuss later on, have contributed to a revival of interest in the art of the Victorian era – a period of art that had essentially become a casualty of the popularity of modernism. In fact, Victorian paintings have been assigned so little value in the past that, as collector of Victorian Art “Kip” Forbes famously quipped in the 1960’s, one could assemble one of the world’s greatest collections of Victorian art for the price of a minor Monet. Which he did. Forbes was a major figure in the revival of Victorian Art who I will profile in greater detail in a future post.
The increasing popularity of Victorian art was particularly evident at the Victorian Art and British Impressionist Art, including Drawings and Watercolors auction held by Christie’s on the 16th of December 2009. A total of five new world auction records were set for classical Victorian Art works by some of the periods best known names such as William Powell Frith, Edward Reginald Frampton and Harold Knight. What is particularly exciting about many of the Victorian Art sales of the last few years is that many brilliant but relatively unknown artists are beginning to be recognized. One such artist is George Spencer Watson R.A whose painting “Four Loves I found, a Woman, a Child, a Horse and a Hound” achieved 151,250 pounds at the above mentioned auction against an estimate of 100,000-150,000 – a new world auction record for the artist. Two other paintings by Watson were also auctioned both of which sold for more than twice the high estimate. The entire 16th December sale wasn’t a massive success with only 63% of the lots sold but this is a reflection of the fact that there are a large number of second and third rate Victorian Art on the market and a small number of connoisseur collectors who only want the very best works.
The availability and affordability of top Victorian paintings during the first half of the 20th Century allowed a select few collectors to corner the market and put together amazing collections of major historical and cultural significance. A short resurgence of interest in the Victorian Art era during the 60′s, particularly in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, saw even more of the few remaining top Victorian Art paintings go to private American and British collectors. With so many of the best that the Victorian Art era had to offer hidden away in the private collections of a few wealthy individuals, the market was left with an abundance of second and third rate works. Considering that a majority of the Victorian era’s top works of art were hidden for so long behind closed doors, it is no wonder that Victorian Art era paintings suffered such a poor reputation for so long.
With no financial or other incentive to sell works from their collection, most of the paintings snapped up during the first half of the 20th century, and the 60′s revival, remained in the hands of collectors and behind closed doors. Death, debt and disaster proved to be the saving graces for the market as a variety of unfortunate circumstances led to a number of the best private collections of Victorian Art being released back onto the market after spending decades out of sight and out of mind. The auction houses love nothing more than a single owner collection that has not been exposed to the market for decades and, as these collections began to become available, spared no effort in making them seem as desirable as possible.
The first of the major collections of Victorian paintings to make an impact on the market was that of American millionaire Fred Koch who, in 1993, sold his major collection of Victorian Art paintings which consisted mainly of narrative work by artists such as Alma-Tadema, Tissot and Lord Leighton. Koch is thought to have made the decision to sell his collection after plans to open a museum in London were somewhat affected by a huge fire at a storage facility that housed most of the furnishings for the museum, as well as Koch’s collection of Bronzes, all of which were destroyed. The devastation of the fire is rumored to have been so disheartening for Koch that he lost his passion for Victorian Art. Koch began by selling some of his collection in Britain through Sotheby’s and achieved some success, particularly with a 7ft painting of the Emperor Heliogabalus drowning his courtiers in rose petals by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema which sold for 1,651,500 pounds. Also achieving a high price was a painting by Sir Frank Dicksee of a a seventh-century Persian heroine reclining on cushions with a vase of lilies by her side which sold for 793,500 pounds. It was, however, in New York that works from Koch’s collection received the best reception with Christie’s selling Tissot’s “L’Orphine” for a record US$2,970,000. A few months later further works from Koch’s collection were entrusted to Sotheby’s New York who sold Alma-Tadema’s “Baths of Caracalla” for a record US$2,532,500.
Following the sale of the Koch collection in 1993, the next major sale of a collection of Victorian Art came in 2003 when the Forbes collection was auctioned by Christie’s over a two day period. The Forbes collection, considered one of the 20th century’s most important collections of Victorian art, was put together by Malcolm and Christopher Forbes of the Forbes Magazine family. Malcolm and his son Christopher began the collection after Christopher made the comment to his father that, for the price of a minor Monet hanging on the wall of his office, he could assemble one of the world’s great collections of Victorian art. Malcolm, a lover of bargains and challenges, liked the sound of this idea and so, with his son Christopher, began collecting. Malcolm Forbes died in 1990 leaving his son with the collection that they had both had put together with passion over a thirty year period.
Unfortunately for Christopher, a family squabble is rumored to have meant that the collection needed to be sold, even though Christopher was quoted as saying at the time that he would not attend the sale because “it would be too sad.” Among the numerous outstanding works that were included in the sale were John Martin’s Pandemonium; Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s ‘Scene in Chillingham Park: Portrait of Lord Ossulston’ or ‘Death of the Wild Bull’; John Phillip’s Early Career of Murillo; Dicksee’s Chivalry; and W.H. Deverell’s masterpiece, Twelfth Night. The sale was a huge success, especially considering the poor market sentiment at the time, with 75% of the works finding new homes for a sale total of 16.9 million pounds. Most exciting of all was the 63 artist auction records set during the sale for artists such as Henry Herbert La Thangue, Sir Edward Landseer and John Martin.
There is no doubt that the success of the sale was bolstered significantly by the association with a famous family – an association that Christie’s took full advantage of. A large contingent of buyers from the Continent, who would usually not be interested in the work of Victorian British paintings, indicated that the Forbes name was a big draw-card. Regardless of the fact that many of the buyers were motivated to a large degree by the provenance of the paintings, the success of the sale and the associated publicity gave the market for Victorian art a major boost. The Forbes sale was a huge milestone for Victorian Art and paved the way for what was to be a slow but steady revival for Victorian art.
Sir David Scott began collecting art in 1910 and over a period of 75 years amassed a large art collection that included 150 Victorian Art, all of which were auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2008, more than 20 years after Scott’s death (1986). Scott was an eccentric aristocrat whose efforts to maintain a low profile meant that he was able to put together an extremely important collection of Victorian art at his Dower House, Northamptonshire residence in relative secrecy. Scott’s passion for art, the Victorian period in particular, is evident in a comment he made regarding one of the paintings in his collection. According to Scott:”I don’t think I have ever seen another picture by Somerville Shanks but if this is typical of his work I wonder why he is not better known, for it is really beautifully painted, the dress of the girl in the foreground is reminiscent of Sargent at his best and of course the whole picture is delightfully nostalgic, absolutely redolent as it were, of a day nursery of the 80s or 90s.” This comment is also evidence of how under-valued and under-appreciated the Victorian era is, particularly the work of Victorian painters.
The length of time that the paintings in the Scott collection had remained off the market made the sale even more enticing to collectors and connoisseurs who turned out in force to take advantage of the opportunity. “A Great British Collection” was the title given to the sale – a move that Sotheby’s hoped would distance the sale from the stigmas associated with the word “Victorian” and bring more people to the sale. At the time of the sale, in November 2008, the art market was still reeling from a major crisis of confidence brought about by the hyper-inflated market for contemporary art, which led to many art market commentators making rather skeptical predictions about the sale. Because the market for Victorian Art was dominated by a small number of passionate collectors and connoisseurs, there was particular concern when the auction took place due to the fact that the removal of even one of the main patrons of the Victorian era could spell disaster for the whole Victorian Art market.
Prior to the Scott Sale, Grant Ford, Senior Director and Head of Victorian Art at Sotheby’s,made the comment that: “Sotheby’s is delighted to be bringing this extraordinary collection to the market. Victorian narrative works are the cornerstone of the collection and not in all my time at Sotheby’s – a period of 22 years – has a collection of this quality come on to the auction market. The Scotts were collectors in the truest sense; they had an individual and discerning taste and they only ever bought paintings that they truly loved and understood and which said something special to them. We look forward to exhibiting this wonderful collection around the world and are sure that the single-owner sale in November will be a real highlight of the Autumn sales calendar.”
Even though the odds were heavily stacked against Sotheby’s, the sale of the Scott collection was a major success for the auction house, and a huge victory for the market for Victorian art. A total of 87.6% of the lots sold for a grand total of £4,620,071 against an estimate of £4.1-6.2 million bringing the sold by value percentage to 77.6%. Most impressively, a total of at least fourteen new artist auction records were established the most impressive of which was achieved for Sophie Anderson whose ‘No Walk Today’ fetched just over £1 million against an estimate of £600,000-800,000. New auction records were also set for William Dyce, John Calcott Horsley, William Somerville Shanks and Thomas Sword Good among others. A total of 280 bidders took part in the sale many of whom were European collectors and investors which is unusual for a genre that would usually only attract British collectors. Considering the importance of the collection and the provenance of the paintings, however, it is not that surprising that many of the works were purchased by Europeans.
After the sale Ford is quoted as having said Commenting on the sale, Grant Ford, Senior Director and Head of Victorian Art at Sotheby’s, said: “This historic collection has attracted an enormous amount of attention from collectors all over the world but especially from our established clients in the UK. As many of the paintings had not been seen in public for several decades and were in a wonderfully fresh condition, a great deal of excitement was generated. We haven’t seen the galleries and saleroom – here in London particularly – as full and busy for a Victorian Art sale in many years. We are absolutely delighted with the new world record price for Sophie Anderson, which fully establishes No Walk Today as one of the most important childhood subjects of its time, and we’re also thrilled and heartened by the many other world record prices achieved. Today’s results are a testament to the discerning eye of two individuals who were collectors in the very truest sense.”
There is no doubt that provenance played a major part in the successful sale of the major private collections of Victorian Art that I have mentioned in this series of posts, which means that the sale of these collections should not be used as an indication of the overall health of the market for Victorian Art. The reason that I spent so much time analyzing these sales is because they have played an important part in what is a slow but steady increase in the recognition and respect that Victorian painters are receiving. Although the extent to which the market for Victorian era art has improved is not as stellar as the figures achieved for the major private collections may suggest, the fact that many previously overlooked artists were given some long overdue attention, and works by more well known Victorian painters were the focus of competitive bidding, is proof that the market for Victorian paintings is heading in the right direction.
In the past one of the biggest problems that has plagued the market for Victorian Art is the lack of academic and curatorial attention that the artists of the period have received. Over the last ten years academics and scholars have, however, begun to take the work of Victorian artists much more seriously, which has resulted in a number of major exhibitions such as:
‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’ held at the Tate Britain in 2002
‘Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria’ held at various locations in Australia during 2002/3
‘Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature’ held at the Tate Britain in 2004
‘Masterworks of Victorian Art from the Collection of John H. Schaeffer’ held at the BYU Museum of Art in 2008
‘Victorian Paintings from the Museo de Arte de Ponc’ held in Spain in 2009
‘Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photo-collage’, a touring exhibition that is currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
It is worth noting that there has been a significant increase in the interest that Americans are showing in Victorian art, which has been fueled partly by several major exhibitions of Victorian art that have gone on show in America over the last ten years. According to the curator of the Californian Palace of the Legion of Honor, an American museum that purchased a major Victorian painting by John Roddam Spencer Stanhome in 2003, “Following a number of popular museum exhibitions recently, there has been a sea-change in the appreciation of Victorian art in America.” (The Daily Telegraph London, January 27th 2003).
Another major exhibition of Victorian Art is about to go on show (May 20) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The exhibition, titled ‘Victorian visions: Nineteenth-century art from the John Schaeffer Collection’, “presents an impressive collection of some 45 paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculptures by some of the luminaries of Victorian art, including works by Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Poynter, Watts and Waterhouse” from the collection of John Schaeffer. Schaeffer is an Australian entrepreneur and art collector whose collection of 19th century European art, rumored to number more than 500 works, is considered to be one of the best in the world. Until recently there were rumors that Schaeffer, one of the biggest buyers of Victorian Art in past years, had withdrawn from the market. Schaeffer’s absence from the salerooms, combined with a minor sell-off of works from his collection, caused a panic that saw confidence in the market for Victorian paintings drop. The rumors were proven to be untrue when Schaeffer purchased a large painting by the late-Victorian symbolist Solomon Joseph Solomon titled ‘Birth of Eve’ at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2009. Schaeffer purchased the 10ft canvas for a record £713,250 – well above the artist’s previous auction record of £35,000.
The effect that the Schaeffer rumours had on the market for Victorian Art is an example of another problem that the market for Victorian paintings needs to overcome. There are so few major collectors of Victorian Art that the actions of just one of those collectors can have major repercussions for the whole market. In fact, you can count the collectors of Victorian Art worth mentioning on one hand, with digits to spare – namely: Isabel Goldsmith, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Schaeffer.