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Art market

Works of St Ives School artists continuously increasing in popularity

Leading the pack are Nicholson and Hepworth, while prices for Lanyon, Hilton and Heron are rising dramatically

The formation of the Tate Gallery St Ives in 1993 and the subsequent run of exhibitions and publications has given the St Ives School a new definition. Suddenly this diverse group of artists who settled in the tiny fishing village of St Ives on the Cornish coast between the 1940s and the 1960s became a recognised entity and was seen as a major force in the development of post-war British art. Leading the field are Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, the only artists in the group of really international stature, who settled in St Ives with their triplets as refugees from the blitz in 1939. Barbara Hepworth never left and her studio is preserved intact in St Ives; Ben Nicholson remained until 1958.

After them come Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton and Patrick Heron, all of whose work has seen dramatic rises in the last five years. Prices for Alfred Wallis’s primitive harbour scenes have also shot up, as have Christopher Wood’s fairly rare Cornish scenes.

The sale of the Stanley Seager collection at Sotheby’s, London, in June 2001 is regarded as something of a benchmark for the School. A Patrick Heron stripe painting of 1958 sold for £289,500, a new record for the artist. It was bought, like most of his stripe paintings in recent years, by the Canadian newspaper man, David Thomson (also the leading collector of Constable). A dynamic abstract by Lanyon, “Cliff Wind” made a new artist’s record at £212,500, and a Cornish still-life by Christopher Wood shot to £234,500. Equally surprising were the prices fetched for works by Alfred Wallis, a harbour scene going for £40,750 against a £5,000/8,000 estimate. Demonstrating that interest in Ben Nicholson continues to grow, an early Cubist-inspired still life in the Seager sale sold for £212,500.

Prices in the summer season this year proved that the Seager Collection was not a one-off: a Patrick Heron stripe painting measuring 48 x 22 ins sold to sculpture dealer Danny Katz for £145,250, underbid by Richard Green, at Bonhams on 2 July. A small Hepworth bronze, “Orpheus”, doubled its estimate at Sotheby’s to make £160,000 on 25 June.

In July, Sotheby’s sold the collection of St Ives work which had belonged to Dr Owen Franklin, the stepson of Naum Gabo. In what was a difficult Modern British sale, these pieces stood out and made good prices. A Nicholson relief of 1962 doubled its mid-estimate to fetch £138,650 and a stripe painting by Heron measuring just 20 x 12 ins made a hefty £78,870.

One of the problems with assessing the market is that there have been no major works by many of the artists at auction in recent years. Many pieces are still in the collections for which they were originally bought and the next 20 years could see some good fresh works on the market as these owners refine their collections or die.

Of Ben Nicholson’s work, the most desirable pieces are undoubtedly from the 30s and 40s. The white reliefs are now considered seminal works, with abstraction taken in its early stages to one of its purist and most beautiful forms. If a major white relief came on the market now, it would fetch £600/800,000. The later abstracts of the 60s have traditionally not been so desirable, but this perception is beginning to change as the early work gets scarcer.

Barbara Hepworth’s prices are creeping up, though many in the trade consider her work still hugely undervalued. Again, it is the early and unique pieces of the 30s and 40s, when she was in the vanguard of abstraction, which are the most sought-after. Pieces in wood, stone or slate also carry a premium over the bronzes. Madeline Bessbourgh of the New Art Centre, who manages the estate, feels she has been overshadowed by Henry Moore for far too long but there is now a growing interest in her work, especially in America. The Tate retrospective next year to celebrate her centenary will focus interest on her work.

Heron and Lanyon, despite exhibiting in American have never received the attention of the American colour field painters. As Jonathan Clark points out in his interview (see p.52), this is still very much a British collecting field. Heron has always been considered a more disciplined artist than Terry Frost who is still alive and living in Zenor, Cornwall today. According to the dealer, Leslie Waddington, who handles the estate, “Heron is beginning to look important internationally and is now collected in Russia, Switzerland and America.”

Lanyon died at the age of 46 in a gliding accident, hence his oeuvre is much smaller. Those works which have come on the market recently have been hotly competed for by dealers and collectors and major works now fetch over £200,000. The more earth-bound of Lanyon’s St Ives work used to be the more popular, but latterly there have been higher prices for the later, more airy ones, influenced both by gliding and his trip to America.

Major works by Roger Hilton have simply not come up at auction recently, but both Jonathan Clark’s two recent exhibitions of his work have been sell-outs. Hilton’s concentration on the female nude and his gritty combination of abstraction and figuration seem very popular today. Of the lesser known artists, Wilhemina Barns-Graham is still alive and painting energetic abstract compositions. Paul Feiler and William Scott’s work have seen big rises, and Jonathan Clark’s forthcoming shows of Bryan Wynter and John Wells should put both these artists on the map.

With more dealers coming into the market, notably Richard Green and Danny Katz, and many of the more contemporary dealers also starting to show work by the St Ives group, it looks as if this market still has plenty of room to grow.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fame and fortune for the Cornwall painters'