Collecting special: Best of British

All serious collectors are in pursuit of the same thing: works of art of great quality that are fresh to the market and that come, preferably, with a distinguished provenance. The three-part Evill/Frost Collection at Sotheby’s London ticks all three boxes, and will focus international attention on to the still relatively undervalued market of modern British art.

Wilfrid Ariel Evill was a discreet but discerning collector and supporter of British figurative art (there is precious little abstraction here), who made his first purchase in 1925. As a solicitor, he represented several of the artists whose work he acquired – Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud among them. None could have needed his advice or patronage more than the profligate and domestically chaotic Spencer, and – along with Spencer’s dealer Dudley Tooth – Evill supported the artist throughout his career, at times acquiring difficult paintings for sums significantly above their market value. One of the few to appreciate Spencer’s idiosyncratic and occasionally shocking vision, he amassed the single largest holding of his work.

Evill’s estate – save for the great Spencers and the Sutherland bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – passed to his ward Honor Frost, an artist, set designer and pioneering marine archaeologist who died last year aged 92. Many of the 120 works now on offer have not been seen in public since the Wilfrid Evill Memorial Exhibition at Brighton City Art Gallery in 1965. This really is the last outstanding first-hand collection of Modern British art that will ever come to the market.

Its 18 works by Spencer range from early pencil, pen, ink and wash biblical narratives (estimates from £25,000) to major canvases such as “Workmen in the House” of 1935, a scene of domestic pandemonium recording the time when the kitchen range smoked at Chapel View in Burghclere (estimate £1.5m-£2.5m), and the extraordinary “Sunflower and Dog Worship” of 1937 with its ecstatic embraces between man, beast and sunflower, all observed with an almost hallucinogenic attention to the stuff and detail of everyday life (£1m-£1.5m).

Other highlights include scenes of urban street life by Edward Burra and the Vorticist William Roberts, a harrowing Sutherland postwar Crucifixion (£150,000- £250,000), painstaking early drawings by Lucian Freud – one acquired for £18 at his first solo show in 1944, for which around £500,000 is now expected – plus work by Barbara Hepworth, Paul Nash and Henry Moore. The latter’s tender bronze, “Rocking Chair No 3”, one of an edition of six casts, was acquired, like the Freuds, with Honor Frost’s encouragement.

As an elected buyer for the Contemporary Art Society between 1946 and 1956, Evill was exposed to a new generation, and a new spirit, in British art. He was a bold buyer of Francis Bacon for British public collections (but not for himself), acquiring instead the likes of Patrick Heron’s exuberant “The Blue Table with Window” (1954) which shows the artist on the cusp of abstraction, looking to Matisse and Braque but employing a palette and manner entirely his own (£250,000-£350,000).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, British art lurched between engagement with the avant-garde movements of continental Europe and isolationist introspection. At the time of Evill’s death in 1963 his collection would have been considered old-fashioned, the Spencers worth perhaps £1,000. Only Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson had real international reputations; the audience for the rest extended only to the English-speaking world. It was not until the late 1960s that a critical re-evaluation of the art of the period began, followed by a gradual rise in prices at the end of the 1970s and early ‘80s.

Initially, the focus of this revival was Walter Sickert and the artists of the Francophile Camden Town Group – effectively Britain’s Post Impressionists – the centenary of whose foundation and first exhibition is being marked by a large-scale show at The Fine Art Society in June. Their pursuit of the magic and pathos in the everyday, particularly in the life of the working people of London, set the agenda for the generations of artists who followed, whether Spencer and his rural folk or the School of London painters: Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff. Many of the works here, drawn from the families of artists, are also fresh to the market (prices £4,000-£400,000).

Revealingly, the market of the 1990s was underpinned by dealers laying down work for stock or buying for themselves. Since then, the focus has shifted towards postwar abstraction, and many more dealers have entered the fray. Most of the best of these dealers will be exhibiting at this summer’s Masterpiece, including Agnew’s, Austin/Desmond, Dickinson, Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert and Robin Katz.

Other treats to look forward to include Stanley Spencer at the Kunsthal Rotterdam, in September. Several of the Evill/Frost Spencers have been requested for that show. No doubt there will be immense competition to be their new owners, for the modern Spencer market has suffered only from the scarcity of material available. The first of his paintings to break through the £1m barrier was “The Crucifixion” in 1990; it took 20 years for another work, “Hilda and I at Pond Street”, de-accessioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, to topple its record. Expect to see the record – currently £1.43m – tumble again.

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