Newly-discovered Blake watercolours go for £10 million - but not to the Tate

An export licence deferral is now expected as the set of 19 watercolours sold to a Glasgow bookshop for a pittance in 2000 were sold to an overseas collector out from under the Tate


A magnificent portfolio of 19 newly discovered Blake watercolours is set to leave the UK. The Art Newspaper can reveal that an export licence application will be made for the original illustrations to Robert Blair’s poem “The grave”, with a proposed valuation which might be as much as £10 million. A few months ago the Tate had tried to buy the watercolours, which former keeper and Blake specialist Martin Butlin describes as “arguably the most important Blake discovery since he began to be appreciated in the second half of the 19th century.”

The Art Newspaper has traced the extraordinary story of the fate of William Blake’s original designs for an engraved version of “The grave”. The 19 watercolours were “lost” for 165 years, hidden away by a family of artists, and two years ago they surfaced, unrecognised, in a Glasgow bookshop, where they were on sale for around £50 each.

Two Yorkshire book dealers bought the set, and eventually accepted a £4.9 million offer from the Tate. Meanwhile a legal wrangle had developed between the Glasgow and Yorkshire dealers, but immediately after this was resolved the Tate was disturbed to find that the portfolio had been quickly sold for a considerably higher sum to a foreign collector.

The set of 19 highly finished watercolours was made by Blake in 1805 for publisher Robert Cromek. Blair’s “The grave” was published three years later, although only 12 of the Blake illustrations had been engraved by Louis Schiavonetti. Seven of the unused watercolours in the newly discovered portfolio were therefore previously unknown.

On Cromek’s death in 1812, the 19 Blakes passed to his widow and after going to another collector they were auctioned in Edinburgh in 1836, fetching just over £1.

At this point the Blakes disappeared. The Art Newspaper has discovered that after the 1836 auction the Blakes went to an appropriate home, a dynasty of Bedfordshire watercolour artists—John Stannard (1794-1882), his son Henry John Stannard (1840-1920), his grandson Henry John Sylvester Stannard (1870-1951), his great-grandson, and then a nephew in Glasgow.

During this period the watercolours were stored in the portfolio, which means that the colours are still in fresh condition. The portfolio was finally sold in 2000, as part of a small family library, to Caledonia Books, a general second-hand bookshop in Glasgow’s Great Western Road run by Maureen Smillie.

Bargain buy

At this point, neither the Stannard family nor Caledonia Books had any idea of the real value of the portfolio, and they presumably believed the contents to be prints which had been coloured. Caledonia Books therefore offered the portfolio for sale at around £1,000, or about £50 a sheet. In retrospect, it is astonishing that the watercolours were not identified as originals, since they are in an elegant early 19th-century Moroccan red portfolio stamped “Designs for Blair’s Grave” and the first watercolour is inscribed with the prominent text: “The Grave/a Poem/By Robert Blair/Illustrated with 12 Engravings/by Louis Schiavonetti/From the Original Illustrations/of/ William Blake/1806). The fact that there were 19, rather than 12, illustrations should also have alerted a dealer to the fact that they might not be looking at mere coloured prints.

In April 2001 the portfolio was spotted in the Glasgow bookshop by another dealer, Dr Paul Williams of Fine Books, from Ilkley, Yorkshire, who specialises in African and Asian exploration. The Ilkley dealer felt they looked interesting and acquired the portfolio. He then contacted a colleague, Leeds dealer Jeffrey Bates of Bates & Hindmarch, which covers Asian travel. Thinking that the illustrations might be valuable, in June 2001 the watercolours were taken to Swindon specialist book auctioneers Dominic Winter.

Director Nathan Winter was the first to realise what they were. “The portfolio was put on my desk, and a second later I was convinced that they were the real thing,” he recalled. Mr Winter immediately called in the Tate experts, Robin Hamlyn and Martin Butlin, who authenticated them as the lost works, last recorded in 1836. Acting on behalf of the two Yorkshire dealers, Dominic Winter began plans for a major auction in June 2002, but at the same time they contacted Tate to see if the museum was interested in acquiring them.

Originally, Tate offered £2 million, but there was pressure to increase the offer and eventually, after seeking advice from Agnews and other specialists, it made a formal offer of £4.2 million in February 2002, which with VAT represented £4.9 million. This price was agreed and on 1 March the gallery was given a five-month period to raise the money. By this time the watercolours had been deposited at Tate. Their existence remained a public secret.

Just a fortnight after the agreement, Tate heard of a legal dispute between the Glasgow bookshop and the two Yorkshire dealers, with Caledonia Books issuing a High Court court writ to block the further sale. Caledonia Books disputed the conditions of the Yorkshire dealers’ acquisition, with a suggestion that the portfolio had been taken on approval. At this point Tate explained that it could not raise the funds and proceed with the purchase until the ownership dispute was resolved.

Mystery buyer

Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota told The Art Newspaper what happened next: “Over the months we made regular inquiries and were told that the dispute was continuing. Then, on 22 November 2002, we were informed that the matter had been settled.” Under an out of court arrangement, the value of the Blakes was to be split between the Glasgow and Yorkshire dealers. The Tate then arranged a meeting with all parties for 18 December.

“Just five days before the scheduled meeting, we were surprised to receive a telephone call from the representative of someone who purported to be the new owner. He asked for the watercolours to be released in less than 24 hours. The Blakes had been sold just in advance of our meeting,” says Sir Nicholas.

By this time the original five-month option had expired, because of the dispute over ownership, and it had, in any case, never been accepted by the Glasgow dealer who had entered the scene with their claim.

Sir Nicholas said that it was “frustrating” to have been offered an option, and then find that a sale had been made. He admitted that technically Tate might have been able to take legal action, but this had not seemed a prudent course.

The sale was arranged by Libby Howie, a successful London art dealer and Blake enthusiast, who was acting initially for the Glasgow bookshop and then also for the Yorkshire dealers. She states that her buyer is “not British, and collects 19th- and 20th-century art”, but is unwilling to say more. Our inquiries suggest that the collector is American.

Record price

Ms Howie revealed to The Art Newspaper that “an export licence application is expected be made in the next few months.” She also said that the price paid by the foreign collector was “considerably” above the £4.9 million offered by Tate, and our inquiries suggest it may have been near £6 million. When asked what valuation would be put on the export licence application, Ms Howie responded: “The value I would place on the Blakes would be in excess of £10 million. They are extremely rare and important works.” However, the valuation on an issued export licence has to be a fair market price acceptable to the government’s Export Reviewing Committee. Any valuation above the actual sales price will, therefore, be very carefully scrutinised.

The record price paid for a single Blake watercolour is $2 million, for “God blessing the seventh day”, which was exported from the UK in 2001 to a New York banker. This watercolour is larger than the Blair illustrations, and only a few of the recently discovered works match its quality, such as “The Day of Judgement”.

Tate had also tried to buy “God blessing the seventh day”, which was originally the subject of an export licence deferral at around half the final price of $2 million. The original application was withdrawn and a second application was made a year later at the higher sum, which was beyond the means of the Tate.

There is, however, another Blake tempera which has just come onto the market for $3.8 million. Artemis Fine Arts is offering “The Virgin hushing the young John the Baptist” of 1799, a work only marginally larger than the newly discovered set.

The good news for Tate is that it has now been promised a £12.5 million donation to buy the Omai portrait by Reynolds, and this will now enable it to concentrate on other acquisitions. Blake’s watercolours for “The grave” are extremely important and there will be strong pressure to save them for the nation.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From £1,000 to £10 million in two years'