Sotheby’s Presents Paintings of Attenborough Auction

Following the announcement in August of the sale of a group of pictures from the collection of Lord and Lady Attenborough at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday, November 11, 2009, Sotheby’s is now providing further details of this spectacular, one-off single-owner sale. A Life In Pictures: The Collection of Lord and Lady Attenborough will present a superb cross-section of British Art from the middle decades of the 20th Century that the Attenboroughs have assembled over the last 60 years with immense passion and a very distinctive eye. The leading names of LS Lowry, Edward Burra, Ivon Hitchens, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Christopher Wood – many of whom the Attenboroughs knew personally – are all represented in the collection and feature alongside one of the most remarkable group of prints by Christopher Nevinson to appear on the market in recent years. The 51 lots are expected to realize in excess of £2 million.

L.S. Lowry
Laurence Stephen Lowry, R.A. (1887-1976), Old Houses, signed and dated 1948, oil on canvas. Estimate: £300,000-500,000. Photo: Sotheby’s

The Attenboroughs’ collecting:
Lord and Lady Attenborough first started collecting British art in the 1940s and it is a hobby and a passion that still remains a significant part of their lives today. Through their collecting they established relationships with many artists and galleries and among the artists they came to know well were Matthew Smith, Graham Sutherland, Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer, Bryan Kneale, Bryan Organ, Henry Moore and LS Lowry. Lord Attenborough’s love of art was inherited from his parents and in particular his father, who in his words “was a distinguished and progressive educationalist who passionately believed that the arts had a fundamental role at the centre of a rounded and civilizing education.”

The Attenboroughs’ collecting taste mirrored that of many of their theatre-world contemporaries – such as John Mills, John Boulting, Larry Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson – and their collection traces the artistic trends in British Art in the mid-part of the 20th Century, while at the same time reflects the experiences and interests of Lord Attenborough’s own career. Key British artists represented in the collection each interpret the significant communal experiences of their day – whether the Second World War, the lives of the working classes or the struggles and achievements of iconic figures of the 20th Century – just as Lord Attenborough did through his work as a renowned actor, director and producer.

Talking about their early years of collecting, Lord Attenborough states: “Such was mine and Sheila’s passion that we had a few paintings on the walls of our Richmond home (in which we rattled around to this day 60 years later) acquired at a very young and impecunious time when we couldn’t even afford carpets and curtains… I still love all the paintings we bought when we were young.”

He adds: “Our collection is dominated by figurative works that possess a narrative. Indeed many have influenced me as a film director. These pieces from our collection are exclusively and unashamedly British. They celebrate not only the inner life of our common humanity but are symbols of our national psyche. The country that we love and whose shores we will never leave.”

Connecting his passion for art with his own work, he comments: “The major challenge of my own work as an actor and director is to offer the audience the opportunity to look at the world differently, frequently through the eyes of a character or characters. Art does that, through the eyes of the artist.”

And discussing the decision to offer for sale this group of 20th Century British Paintings and Prints, Lord Attenborough, said: “60 years ago my wife Sheila and I bought the house we live in to this day. We could not afford carpets or curtains, but more importantly for us we had a few pictures for our walls. Today, this passion has led us to the position of possessing more paintings than those walls can contain. We have loved and cherished these wonderful pieces throughout the course of our lives, but in all truth, art belongs to no one, some of us are simply its temporary, fortunate and delighted custodians. Now is the moment for us to pass on these ravishing images for others to treasure and enjoy.”

James Rawlin, Senior Director and Head of 20th Century British Art at Sotheby’s, talking about the collection, states: “This is a very personal, very British collection that has been assembled with huge amounts of knowledge, understanding and enthusiasm. It provides a superb snapshot of British Art during the middle years of the 20th Century when so much was going on in the wider world and it does so in a very individual way. The Attenboroughs have maintained their same collecting vision throughout the last 60 years, from their very first purchases in the late 1940s right up to today, and this gives the collection a wonderful sense of harmony. Within the collection there are some very important works by Graham Sutherland and Christopher Nevinson, in particular.”

The sale highlights:
Old Houses by L.S. Lowry is one of the sale’s undoubted highlights and this is a superb example of the artist’s imagery that manages to be simultaneously nostalgic, theatrical and questioning. In the late-1950s and early-1960s, the ‘new wave’ of British cinema brought the lives of the working classes to the fore and found an artistic parallel in the paintings of Lowry and during this period his works entered the collections of many in the dramatic worlds, such as Lord Attenborough, who remained a close friend of the artist for many years. The Attenboroughs were great admirers of the urban realism of Lowry’s work. Old and dilapidated buildings always held a fascination for Lowry and in Old Houses, estimated at £300,000-500,000, he represented the kind of life which was only too familiar in countless industrial districts of cities across the midlands and the north of England.

Thorn Head, 1947 by Graham Sutherland is arguably the finest work by Sutherland to appear on the market in more than 20 years; in fact since this same picture was last sold at Sotheby’s in 1984. Dating from a crucial period in the artist’s career, it is both a refinement of the themes and concerns that inspired his work during the late 1930s and the war years, and also a pre-figuration of much that was to come. The painting – a powerful, abstract image on a large-scale – relates to a commission from Rev. Walter Hussey for a painting of the crucifixion for St Matthew’s Church in Northampton and the group of paintings to which Thorn Head, 1947 belongs demonstrates how Sutherland’s working methods often spawned entirely different strands of imagery from one original concept. The painting was executed around the time of Sutherland’s great friendship and working relationship with Francis Bacon and at a time when Sutherland’s prominence and reputation was far ahead of that of Bacon. Extensively exhibited worldwide, Thorn Head, 1947, is an example of Sutherland at his very best and it comes to the market with an estimate of £150,000-250,000.

Christopher Wood is represented in the sale by two works: Flowers on a Chair with Pipe and Paper, estimated at £100,000-150,000, and Card Players, which is expected to fetch £30,000-50,000. The first of these works was painted in Paris in 1928 and, typical of many of the works in the Attenboroughs’ collection, the theme is perhaps not what it at first appears. The apparently casual arrangement of everyday objects and flowers on closer inspection tell the story of the frequent duality in Wood’s work, an artist with a somewhat changeable mental state, depending on the circumstances in which he found himself and his relationships at the time. While the pipe, packet, newspaper and jug are all painted with Wood’s usual broad and fluid handling, the flowers are rendered with a huge level of intensity and perhaps hint at narcotics in play.

Lord Attenborough first purchased Card Players in the 1940s but he was then forced to sell the picture in the late 1970s to help finance a film he was working on at the time. He describes: “I desperately needed to raise money – in fact for my long cherished film of ‘Gandhi.’ So I sold my beloved Card Players by Christopher Wood, inspired by Cézanne and one of the first paintings I ever bought from the Redfern in 1949. As soon as it became available again and I could afford it, I bought it back!” Lord Attenborough did indeed purchase the work again in 1985 and it has remained in his collection since. One of Wood’s earliest pictures, The Card Players was painted in Paris around the Christmas of 1922. Directly influenced by Cézanne, Wood mentions the painting in a letter to his mother and the subject was one to which the artist returned on a number of occasions over the years.

Two landscapes by Edward Burra are entitled Harbour with Boats, Plymouth and Wye Valley I and these are estimated at £120,000-180,000 and £70,000-100,000 respectively. Landscape was an important part of Burra’s early work but it was only towards the end of his career that it became a subject to which he devoted considerable time and effort and the two landscapes on offer vary in date by a period of approximately 30 years.

The panoramic sweep of Plymouth Harbor dates from 1936 – some 32 years earlier than the view of Wye Valley – and while at first it seems to capture the everyday details of a very British harbor; a closer look shows the artist’s tendency for surrealist sensibilities. Shortly after he painted the Plymouth view he became completely occupied with images relating to the Spanish Civil War and did not return to the landscape genre until the late 1940s.

From the mid 1960s onwards Burra made a number of motoring tours around Britain with his sister Anne and visited the more remote areas of the Lake District, the Yorkshire Moors, Devon, Cornwall, the Fens and Welsh borders. Created from memory, Burra’s interpretations of the views that he saw – of which Wye Valley I is a prime example – often changed and exaggerated the landscape to imbue it with an anthropomorphism and drama.

Christopher Nevinson is represented by a superb depiction of The Battlefields of Britain as well as an exemplary group of prints. Although Nevinson will always be linked to his images of the Western Front during the First World War, The Battlefields of Britain – which dates from 1941, the dark days of the Second World War – demonstrates that he had not lost his ability to capture the essential nature of each specific conflict.

As the first major invasion threat fought over, if not actually on, British soil for centuries, the Battle of Britain was of huge national significance and Nevinson created an image that even as time passes, remains an icon of a key moment in British history. It was one of three paintings that Nevinson produced under the group title The Battlefields of Britain; two were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1942. The artist presented one version to the nation in late 1942 and it hung in the Council Room of the Air Ministry during the war.

Highlighting the group of Nevinson prints – in terms of value – is French Troops Resting, which is a prime example of the artist’s ability to bring together the disparate elements of warfare. It captures a group of fatigued soldiers gathered by a roadside taking a brief respite, a key part of military life. The print dates from 1916 and is estimated at £30,000-50,000. Further notable highlights of the group are: A Dawn 1914 (est.: £25,000-35,000); Returning to the Trenches from 1916, which is perhaps one of Nevinson’s most immediately recognisable images of the Great War (est.: £20,000-30,000); and The Road from Arras to Bapaume, which was the result of his later visits to the Western Front during 1917 in his role as an Official War Artist (est.: £18,000-25,000). In this latter work Nevinson has created an image which sums up both the destruction and day-to-day business of war; it shows the blasted empty landscape with just the stumps of trees left behind depicted alongside the orderliness of the men and vehicles moving in both directions.