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Sotheby's sale offers a journey through British art
Peter Lanyon, 'Fly Away', 1961, Estimate £300,000-500,000. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

LONDON.- During the middle of the 20th century, London – bomb-ravaged and starving but still the capital city of a global empire – had a serious competitor as the artistic capital in a small fishing village at the westernmost tip of the country. In both London and Cornwall, artists wrestled with the question posed by German philosopher Adorno – how could one write poetry after the horrors of Auschwitz? For London-based artists such as Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and Reg Butler this resulted in an intense and forensic re-examination of the human figure and human relationships. In St Ives, on the other hand, artists such as Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Terry Frost turned to abstraction – Modernism’s attempt to filter out much of modernity – in a search for the eternal, ineffable and universal rooted in an ancient landscape untroubled by man.

Taking a closer look at the artists in the sale, it is evident that the war had a direct impact on their lives: Peter Lanyon, the RAF mechanic; artilleryman Alan Davie and tank trooper Alexander Mackenzie; Terry Frost and Roger Hilton, the commando prisoners of war; Reg Butler, the conscientious objector and architect-turned-blacksmith; merchant seaman Lucian Freud and child refugee Frank Auerbach; Michael Kidner, demobilised from the Canadian Signals corps at the age of twenty-nine.

Bringing together an exciting selection of paintings, drawings, etchings and sculpture by the British artists at the forefront of the avant-garde, this private collection is marked by a profound engagement with the unique nature of post-war British art. This sale follows the recent landmark auction of David Bowie’s personal art collection at Sotheby’s in November 2016, in which records were achieved for Auerbach and Lanyon.

St Ives plays a pivotal position within the history of twentieth century British art. This collection tells the story of the energy that came out of St Ives, and how a fishing village on the tip of Cornwall was to become a centre of the British avant-garde to rival London in the decades following the Second World War. A haven for artists with a fascination for landscape and the sea, it was an entirely different inspirational atmosphere with constantly changing light and landscape. A connection with Cubism and Constructivism was overlaid with a new relationship with American painting, in particular the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School – a transatlantic dialogue that Patrick Heron named ‘The St Ives-New York axis’.

Peter Lanyon, Fly Away, oil on canvas, 1961 (est. £300,000-500,000)
“I believe that landscape… is the proper place to find our deepest meanings… I want to make the point that landscape painting is… a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them.”

The only native Cornishman who was part of the avant-garde community based around St Ives, Lanyon truly understood the region – be it the old and the new, the real and the mythical – and was intimately connected to the landscape. Travelling by foot, motorbike and then glider, he transcribed his experiences onto canvas. This final mode of transport, gliding, produced arguably his most striking and successful works – yet it was a passion that tragically cut short his life with a fatal accident in 1964. The huge scale of Fly Away and the strong, energetic brushstrokes that fill it give an impression of the fierce winds the artist would have battled and the sheer physicality involved. Lanyon himself insisted in no uncertain terms that he was not an abstract painter and this work reflects that ambiguity, as it is filled with colours and shapes that seem to reference specific elements or landmarks yet eludes them too. A dramatic single flash of yellow pierces the black like a fork of lightning. The title of the painting speaks of the desire to explore with joyful abandon and of all the romantic, ethereal connotations that come with the phrase. In the five years that Lanyon flew, he produced a radical yet sophisticated series of Gliding Paintings, which were the focus of an acclaimed exhibition titled ‘Soaring Flight’ at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2016.

Patrick Heron, Tall Brown: June 1959, oil on canvas (est. £400,000-600,000)
Tall Brown equals the scale, ambition and presence of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, the earthly luminosity of the painting beautifully anchoring this New York moment on the high moors above the remote coastal village of Zennor. Indeed, two months after this work was painted, Lanyon hosted a visit by Mark Rothko to St Ives, even trying to tempt him to stay with the prospect of using a derelict chapel as a studio. The work marks the high point of a two-year journey for Heron, as the tachisme of his breakthrough ‘garden paintings’ and the ‘horizontal stripe’ paintings of the preceding years gave way to more meditative ‘colour-fields’. This is where Heron fully establishes his idea of ‘space in colour’, where a sense of space and light are created through the careful placement of colours side by side. Key to this concept is the moment of contact between individual colours – the interplay of edges – which is so beautiful expressed in the resonant fields of deep red and lozenges of orange, white and black in this work. The compositions grew organically on the canvas and so the painting is made up of a series of vivid moments. No British artist of the period explores the possibilities of the edge of the canvas – the borderland between our world and the painted world – quite like Heron.

In 2018, a retrospective of his work will open at the new extended gallery space at Tate St Ives. This will explore the full evolution of his vibrant abstract paintings, focusing on the sense of scale, colour and composition.

Sir Terry Frost, Three Graces, oil on board, December 1956 (est. £120,000-180,000)
The power and authority with which Frost uses the colour black in this cutting-edge example of the artistic avant-garde is a testament to his great artistic prowess, and stands up to the finest examples of monochrome painting by Franz Kline or Pierre Soulages.

The theme of the Three Graces, or three nude figures, had fascinated Frost since he first encountered Peter Paul Rubens’ Judgement of Paris of 1635-6 in the National Gallery in London. The combination of the interaction of three figures, or the same figure seen from three different viewpoints, and the erotic overtones made it a source of much interest. This was allied to the attraction that the pagan gods of Cornwall held for him, specifically the idea of a sensuous figure of love. During the 1950s, like Roger Hilton and William Scott, Frost explored how he might introduce the figure into his otherwise almost abstract compositions. The three female figures are represented by soft rectangular forms and are stabilised only by three lines, dominating the picture plane. There is a tension between the narrative figuration evoked by the title and the bold graphic abstraction of the composition with its starkness of colour. Three Graces was painted in the same year that Frost and his contemporaries saw the first British exhibition of American Abstract Expressionism at the Tate Gallery, which may well have encouraged the artist’s greater appreciation of an expressive paint surface, monochrome palette and large scale canvas.

Bryan Winter, Sea Change, oil on canvas, 1959 (est. £60,000-80,000)
Although Wynter was very much part of the socalled ‘St Ives’ School, his work had a dark, hallucinatory quality that felt of an altogether different timbre. If Heron was painting light and Lanyon the elemental forces that swirled around the Penwith peninsular, then Wynter’s work explores a mysterious netherworld – the Cornwall of complex mysticism. In the mid-1950s, Wynter had begun to take mescalin, prescribed to him by a London psychologist keen to understand the effect of hallucinogens on creative minds. The artist found that he could remember his visions and recorded his journey in paintings such as the fractured visual experience found in Sea Change. The title contains a deliberate double-play, referring both to the elemental force most prevalent for those living on an isolated coastal peninsular but also to a state of mind. Wynter’s paintings from this period searched for the magic lost to mankind through ‘civilisation’ and as such, they can be seen as perfect examples of the fundamental ambitions of Modern art to return this magic to the modern world.

For artists in London in the post-war period, influence and inspiration still came from Europe – from art’s engagement with psychoanalysis, existentialism and angst. At the same time, international modernism was putting down roots in London, with the influx of creative and intellectual refugees fleeing from Nazism.

Frank Auerbach, Jake Seated, oil on board, 2000 (est. £300,000-500,000)
“It is intimate… it’s not as if the painting isn’t about our relationship. It is – it’s about everything…I think people sit for my father because he’s good company. He’s recording lives, their different facets, bit by bit.’

Auerbach’s son Jake was born in 1958 and when he was only five or six, his parents separated and he didn’t see his father for many years. He started sitting for him shortly after their reunion, and has since sat for him regularly for over forty years. Like all of Auerbach’s paintings, Jake Seated is the result of hours spent in front of the subject observing every feature, detail and tension both physical and psychological that subsequently informs each stroke. His portraits reveal his own experience of the people and places closest to him, and few are closer than the emotional bond between father and son. Here, Jake sits upright in the same armchair that appeared in so many of Auerbach’s paintings, a nod to Rembrandt’s Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels in the National Gallery. The chair provides an architectural framework in which to unleash his most energetic brush strokes and an extraordinarily jewel-like palette. Significantly, the artist chose this painting to be illustrated as one of very few details in the catalogue to his major 2001 retrospective at the Royal Academy, London. A filmmaker, Jake has portrayed his father’s intensive working process – painting 365 days a year and rarely leaving the corner of north London where he has lived since the Second World War – in two films FRANK (2015) and Frank Auerbach: To the Studio (2005).

Reg Butler, Machine, shell bronze, conceived in 1953 (est. £60,000-80,000)
Butler was both an architect and an essentially untrained avant-garde sculptor – having worked briefly as an assistant in Henry Moore’s studio and having tried his hand as a blacksmith during the war – whose idiosyncratic style and experimental approach drew the attention of contemporary artists and critics alike. He exhibited at both the 1952 and 1954 Venice Biennales and encapsulated what Herbert Read had recognised as the ‘Geometry of Fear’ evident amongst the sculptors of the post-War generation. As one of Butler’s earliest works, Machine is one of those seminal pieces which led to his international recognition. A rare cast, the positioning of the figure bears close comparison to both Giacometti’s The Chariot from 1950 as well as ancient bronzes.

Lucian Freud, Woman with an Arm Tattoo, etching, 1996 (est. £30,000-50,000)
Rightly recognised as one of the past century’s greatest portrait painters, Lucian Freud’s etchings do not aim to reproduce his paintings but are executed in close relation to his painted subjects. The artist uses the print to revisit a subject or motif from a slightly different vantage point or within another context. Woman with an Arm Tattoo features Freud’s well-known sitter Sue Tilley, the subject for his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping nude in 1994. Adopting the Old Master technique of etching, as opposed to modern alternatives, as with Picasso, Freud viewed the process of etching as a natural extension of drawing. It was a process that captivated the artist’s imagination, a sort of artistic alchemy in which he was drawn to the “element of danger and mystery. You don’t know how it’s going to come out. What’s black is black. What’s left is right.” It also presented new possibilities to capture his carefully considered graphic manner and acute observational awareness, and in this work the delicacy of the fine lines magically creates soft and ageing skin and draws his viewers into the life of his subject.

To experience the London Art Scene in the early 1960s was to witness a truly seismic shift. The rebirth of abstract painting announced in the first Situation exhibition in 1960 explicitly excluded work that made reference to any reality outside itself. To qualify for inclusion, paintings also had to cover an area of at least 30 feet. This scale and technicolour glory shifted the emphasis onto the audiences’ experience. The centre was well and truly metropolitan.

John Hoyland, 23.6.66, acrylic on canvas (est. £60,000-80,000)
“Paintings are there to be experienced, they are events. They are also to be meditated on and to be enjoyed by the senses; to be felt through the eye.”

Hoyland was without doubt one of Britain’s leading abstract painters of the 1960s and to many, his paintings of the 1960s capture the very essence of the decade. Not distracted by the rise of British and American Pop Art, Hoyland’s work remained rooted in the pure, bold application of colour seen here in the deep, rich Rothko-red palette. The scale of his work also challenged the norms of British art of the day. His incredibly pure and fresh works are paintings to be experienced and encountered, in order to fully appreciate the brilliance and stark originality of an artist that refused to stand still. Straight after leaving the Royal Academy Schools, Hoyland took part in the seminal Situation and New Generation group shows, was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery – the most progressive and forward thinking public institution in the country at the time – and represented Britain at the 1969 São Paulo Biennale.

Jeremy Mood, Untitled [4/73], acrylic on shaped canvas, 1973 (est. £10,000-15,000)
Moon’s work challenges the ideals of perceptual viewing, and finds the inherent joy in picture making. This is made all the more poignant, as the artist died tragically young following a motorcycle accident in 1973 – the year this work was made. After reading Law at Cambridge, Moon had embarked on a career in advertising but after seeing the large-scale abstract paintings of Bernard Cohen and William Turnbull at the second Situation exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery, he decided to pursue a career in the arts. With his bold use of flat, block colours and experimentation with shaped canvases, Moon’s paintings reflected the forward thinking optimism of a generation of artists. He continued to draw on his early career in advertising, relying on meticulously worked sketches and designs and a palette reminiscent of the bright 1960s billboards.

Michael Kidner, Orange and White Painting, oil on canvas, 1960 (est. £8,000-12,000)
“I had no idea of what life was going to be like really. It was a blank, the new world was a very new world. I might have been born into it that day”

Orange and White Painting is an example of Kidner’s ‘after image’ canvases, which marked him out as perhaps Britain’s first so-called ‘Op Artist’. His work was underpinned by an intelligence and visual sensibility informed by mathematics and chaos theory, as well as soft cadences of colour.

The evening auction will take place in Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries on Thursday 29 June. This will be preceded by a gallery talk by art historian Michael Bird on Sunday 11 June (on the same day as a Radio 3 Sunday Feature on Heron and Frost is to air)

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