Revenge of the moderns

Discussions of London’s Pavilion of Art and Design (PAD) usually mention its “gallic chic” and “foreign flair”. Started by French art dealers Patrick Perrin and Stéphane Custot in 2007, the fair oozes international allure – from a roll call of exhibitors from across Europe and the US to the Ola!-glam visitors who trip through its Mayfair marquee.

Yet this year it could be Albion’s artists that shine. A clutch of dealers, including specialists Robin Katz, Osborne Samuel and Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert, will be bringing a strong selection of modern British art that embraces such household names as Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth as well as lesser-known talents such as Cyril Power and Bob Law.

These galleries are hoping to capitalise on a market that is on the upswing. That Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud regularly headline auction results is not news. This pair, however, are classed as “contemporary”, whereas it is the “modern” brigade who are now making their mark. Only last year at PAD, Jermyn St dealer Simon Dickinson sold a 1965 oil, entitled “E.O.W. on her Blue Eiderdown II”, by School of London painter Frank Auerbach for over £2m.

Most telling were the dramatic prices fetched by modern British artists (MBAs) at Sotheby’s last June when the auction house sold off the collection assembled by Stanley Spencer’s lawyer Wilfrid Evill. Here the star was a Stanley Spencer oil, “Sunflower and Dog Worship” (1937), which smashed its estimate of £1m-£1.5m to fetch £5m. Auction records were also set for Jazz Age chronicler Edward Burra (whose “Zoot Suits” fetched over £2m), Graham Sutherland and Patrick Heron as well as for a Lucian Freud work on paper.

So why have the MBAs, for so long dormant compared to their more dynamic continental peers, started to stir? “There are a lot of different reasons,” observes Frances Christie, 20th-century British Art specialist at Sotheby’s. First, she points to the string of “really amazing private collections” the auction house has offered recently, including those belonging to Lord and Lady Attenborough and Robert Devereux, both of which were sold in 2009. While back in 2001, the Stanley J Seeger collection “redefined the market” for St Ives artists Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon.

“These collections released a clutch of museum-quality pieces onto the market,” says Christie. “It was a revelation to non-British collectors, who didn’t realise how innovative our artists could be.”

Also crucial was the new-found attention of international museums. “Recently we saw Wyndham Lewis at the Fundación Juan March in Madrid last year, the vorticists at Tate Britain and Stanley Spencer is currently showing at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam,” recalls Christie. “This helps raise the profile of British art internationally.”

It is the presence of foreign collectors, many of whom will be zig-zagging between Berkeley Square and Frieze in Regent’s Park, that draws the galleries to book space within PAD’s gracious swags. “PAD gives a platform to modern British dealers so we can put our art in its rightful international context,” says Robin Katz.

James Holland-Hibbert observes the lure of British modernists to buyers from across the Atlantic. “A lot of my clients are from the US,” he says, adding that several postwar British artists, such as Peter Lanyon and William Scott (who specialised in still lifes and landscapes and was influenced by abstract expressionism), had strong ties with the US.

The slow start of modern British art means that many of its leading exponents are still good value for money. “A US equivalent of Patrick Heron would cost three to four times as much,” muses Gordon Samuel of Osborne Samuel. This year, Samuel’s stock at PAD ranges from a £1.3m bronze sculpture, “Reclining Figure: Prop” (1981), by Henry Moore, to drawings by the same artist for as little as £17,500. He is also proud of a 1942 painting in tempera by ex-vorticist Edward Wadsworth entitled “Quiet Outlook: Seaweed and Lighthouse”, an unnerving, perfectly drafted image of a strand of seaweed draped over a wooden bar as if a crucifix, priced at £150,000. Also notable is a small John Piper watercolour from the early 1940s. Titled “Gibbs Hall”, it is just 5” x 8.5” but the intensity of mood and tone, its lightless black windows burrowing into crumbling, red-flushed brickwork, make it desirable at £15,000.

Robin Katz points out that British art is still affordable because “masterpieces have not been sucked into big collections in museums. They are still coming on to the market.” As well as sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, Lynn Chadwick and Robert Adam and a monochrome oil by Patrick Caulfield, he is excited to be bringing a pair of drawings by Bob Law. The British minimalist recently made tabloid headlines of the is-it-really-art variety following the announcement that his large canvas, “Nothing to be Afraid of V 22.8.69” – which comprises no more than a single line of marker pen around white space – is to be auctioned at Bonhams’ first Contemporary Evening Sale on October 13 for an estimated £60,000. Buyers who want a little more for their money will find Katz’ drawings excellent value. They are £15,000 for the pair and one of them boasts, rather than white space, vigorous scribbles within Law’s trademark black border.

The criticism frequently levelled at British modernists is that they were followers rather than leaders. Certainly, there was no artistic revolution comparable to those that took place in early 20th-century France, Germany and, later, in the US. Yet their defenders argue that British artists made important breakthroughs. “Think of early Barbara Hepworth, early Henry Moore. They were leaders,” declares Katz, adding that Eduardo Paolozzi paved the way for pop art with collages of magazine cuttings in the late 1940s.

He also stresses that within styles – abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, constructivism – that had already been set, British artists pursued powerfully individual visions: “You couldn’t say that Peter Lanyon was a lesser De Kooning.”

Patrick Caulfield’s ‘Concrete Villa, Brunn’ (1963)

Boosting their re-evaluation is the decision by auction houses to separate early British modern artists from their Edwardian predecessors. “Several years ago, we decided to put Victorian and Edwardian artists, such as Munnings, in one category and create another for modern and postwar British art which would focus specifically on the avant-garde artists working in the 20th century,” explains Sotheby’s Frances Christie. Such moves will bestow a much-needed collective identity on the MBAs, and feed into the rolling-stone momentum of today’s art market. “As more great pieces come on the market, it creates the desire for more,” she explains.

A reservoir of top-quality work is essential if this market is to sustain its energy. Indeed, the Simon Dickinson gallery already perceives a weakening in the demand for Auerbach. “Prices for Auerbach have plateaued a little since last year,” comments director Bona Montague. “There is a group of Auerbach collectors who already have great interiors, figures and landscapes and will wait until something else truly spectacular comes up.”

Indeed, this year, rather than British art, the gallery will focus on “blue-chip international artists” including Rothko, Ruscha and Gerhard Richter. Montague points out that “the latter will be in everyone’s sights thanks to the retrospective at the Tate Modern”. That institution’s decision to relegate British artists – save for the odd contemporary star – to its less-visited site across the river does the home market no favours. Next week at least, the MBAs will have a suitably high-profile showcase in Berkeley Square.

The Pavilion of Art and Design, London, October 12-16

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