By Peter James Smith, on 05-May-2016

To quote Robert Browning, it was ‘Roses, roses all the way’… as twentieth century Australian women painters paved the way for Deutscher and Hackett’s successful season opener:  in a sale stacked with vibrant international work that seemed to contextualise the Australian offerings their sale effortlessly stared down the winter chill post budget night with a solid clearance rate of 78% on the night.

D+H deserve full marks for a tightly curated auction that Roger McIlroy delivered with wit and poise. Across the sale, quality works fresh to the market were fiercely contested. There were no million dollar price tags among the estimates, but the catalogue was solid in all periods: Colonial, Modern and Contemporary. For D+H there was ‘myrtle mixed in my path like mad’… when Five Botanical Studies, c1805, (lot 23) by John William Lewin sailed to $248,000 over a $10,000-$15,000 estimate to the rapture of an applauding audience. Myrtle indeed.  (All realised prices quoted include the buyer’s premium.)

At Deutscher and Hackett’s sale of Important Australian & International Fine Art in Melbourne on 4 May, there was ‘myrtle mixed in my path like mad’… when ‘Five Botanical Studies’, c1805, by John William Lewin sailed to $248,000 over a $10,000-$15,000 estimate to the rapture of an applauding audience. D+H deserve full marks for a tightly curated auction where quality works fresh to the market were fiercely contested. The catalogue was solid in all periods resulting in a solid clearance rate of 78%.

But at all price levels it was painting by Australian women that attracted buyers’ attention. The iconic Australian landscape Through the Gum Trees, Toongabbie (Lot 22 ) by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1884-1961) soared to $110,000 including buyer’s premium on an estimate $30,000-$40,000.  This 1920s landscape work steeped in international exhibition history, was scored with black tree outlines over a sunlit field—the planes of colour hinting at the rise of modernism in Australia.

A similarly modernist Catalan Market (Lot 13 ) by Sheila Hawkins (1905-1999) reached $47,000 over a top estimate of $40,000—as did Grace Cossington Smith’s Evening Landscape at Pentecost, c1930, (Lot 18 ) over a top estimate of $25,000. This staccato work by Smith was rhythmic, angular and shone with an atypical colour palette. 

Similarly fresh to the market was a vibrant very French Still Life with Flowers and Pears (Lot 31 ) by Bessie Davidson (1879-1965) reaching $62,000 within its estimated range; Davidson, like her compatriot Rupert Bunny spent much of her painting life in France, but remained staunchly Australian. Even at the tail end of the sale, a beautiful Art Deco linocut Steeplechasing, 1930, (Lot 138 ) by Sybil Andrews reached $20,000 above its $12,000-$15,000 range.

The sonorous early Yvonne Audette (1930- ) Vibrations, 1965, (Lot 61 ), an abstract work quite modest in size but lyrical in spirit, reached $21,000 over a $10,000-$15,000 estimate.  Others to sell at or above their estimated ranges were Constance Stokes, Clarice Beckett and Kate O’Connor and of course Margaret Olley. There is a pattern here: these women all contributed to Australian modernist style in previously underestimated ways.

Works from the collection of Gene and Brian Sherman comprised the first seven lots of the sale. Single owner collections are well favoured by the market not only because provenance is indisputable, but also because gallerists such as the Shermans are good pickers. As industry insiders, and instinctive collectors, they were able to seek out key works from across the market with vitality and grace. 

John Olsen’s Self Portrait Travelling West, 1990-1992, (Lot 2 ) is such an example: this is a large perceptive work about life’s journeys—painted with organic traceries and Olsen’s usual deft brushwork.  It was fiercely contested with the room and three phones to settle at $372,000 eclipsing the $180,000-$220,000 estimates.  

Similarly Gordon Bennet’s Notes to Basquiat: (AB) Original, 1999 (Lot 5 ) soared to $89,000 over a $60,000 top estimate.  This is a painting infused with signs of (ab)originality, but with a laid back reflective surface in cool mimicry of Jean Michel Basquiat’s intense streetwise expressionistic style. This is an intellectually sophisticated and visually compelling image that is Bennet at his best.

The Colonial Art on offer totally outshone its modest estimates.  The Five Botanical Studies, c1805, by John William Lewin mentioned in the introduction were spectacular in their floral detail, and curiously seemed almost post-modern with their pencilled diagrammatic overlays. A small watercolour portrait of John Skinner Prout’s brother Cornelius by colonial artist Augustus Earle (Lot 24 ) effortlessly climbed to $180,000, double its top estimate.  These spectacular results are borne from a tightly curated offering of quality rather than quantity.

The contemporary international works certainly made for an impressive installation at the pre-sale viewing. Leading the charge here were two late works by New Zealand Grand Master Colin McCahon (Lot 42 ) and (Lot 43 ) that had originally been gifted to writer/biographer Gordon H Brown. They relate to the gannet colonies on the cliffs at Muriwai west of Auckland, where McCahon had a studio; the flightpaths of these small birds parallel the spiritual lives of people. Unfortunately, these works failed to reach their $140,000 low estimates, even though they were fresh to the market and wonderful counterpoints to McCahon’s famous Necessary Protection series. 

In complement, on a nearby wall at the viewing was a seriously calligraphic black-painted Untitled, 1987, paper work by Robert Motherwell (Lot 55 ), carrying its ab-ex heart on its sleeve. It sold for $116,000 over a top estimate of $70,000.

Also nearby, and also black, was the gigantic (2.5 metres high) linocut by South African William Kentridge, Walking Man, 2000, (Lot 50 ). This sensational work sold for $47,000, just above the top estimate. Kentridge casts his figure as weighed down by the tree branches of possessions, politics and disaffection—but his drawing skill appears effortless. This international work provided the perfect context to showcase contemporary Australian offerings such as the achingly ironic Big Apple, Batlow, NSW, 2004 (Lot 127 ) by Noel McKenna which sold for a comfortable $18,000, more than double its top estimate and close to the artist’s auction record.

Sale Referenced: Important Australian + International Fine Art, Deutscher and Hackett , Melbourne, 04/05/2016

About The Author

Peter James Smith is an established professional artist and writer based in Melbourne. Until his retirement from academia, he was Professor of Mathematics and Art and Head, School of Creative Media at RMIT University. He holds a Doctorate in Mathematical Modelling and three Masters Degrees in Mathematics, Statistics and Fine Art.