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“There is no Abstract Art” – Picasso

  • February 11, 2024
  • 6 min read
“There is no Abstract Art” – Picasso

Explore London’s art and antiques scene with Anthony J Lester’s February round-up, featuring insights from galleries like Fiumano Clase, Piano Nobile, Portland Gallery, David Messum Fine Art, Cristea Roberts Gallery, and Sotheby’s.

In Edition 18 of Eye on London I wrote about ‘sleepers’ – works of art that turn up mis-catalogued at auction and are later found to be important and valuable. As an example, I penned: “On 6th December, 2023, Sotheby’s evening auction of ‘Old Masters & 19th Century Paintings’ includes ‘The Adoration of the Kings’, oil on oak panel by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).” This painting was purchased in 2021 at Christie’s, Amsterdam for £731,605 (including premium). It was then catalogued as ‘circle of Rembrandt’, in other words merely of the period and in the style of the artist. However, following the picture’s cleaning and detailed scrutiny via infra-red imaging, experts now concede the small Biblical scene is an indisputable work by Rembrandt. This resulted in it selling for £10,965,300 at the Sotheby’s December auction. An impressive yield for somebody!

Undiscovered treasure is still to be found and age is not always the criteria! Last year a hardback first edition of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ sold at auction for £10,500. In poor condition, it had been purchased for 30p at a Wolverhampton Library sale. Harry Potter first editions are rare because when Bloomsbury published it on 30th June, 1997, they only printed 500, 300 of which went to libraries. In 2021 a pristine first edition sold at auction in Texas for £356,000.

Think you might have one of these early hardbacks – here are a few pointers to look for. On the copyright page the print line needs to read 10987654321, on page 53 “1 wand” appears twice in list of five school supplies Harry should bring to Hogwarts and on the back cover the second “o” in ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ is missing.

At the Paris Salon in 1884 a painting entitled Madame X triggered controversy – many deeming it provocatively erotic. The artist was so distraught he moved to London where he soon established himself as the most successful portrait painter of his generation. His name was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was born in Italy to American parents. Ironically, Madame X is now hailed a masterpiece and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Depicting Madame Pierre Gautreau, a twenty-four-year-old American socialite, dressed in a long black gown, her shoulders exposed, with the right jewelled dress-strap hanging cheekily off her shoulder. Critics lashed out, calling it an immoral composition (after the exhibition, Sargent repainted the strap in its proper position). The iconic painting will be one of the highlights at Sargent and Fashion, taking place between 22nd February and 7th July, at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG. It might be a cliché, but, in my opinion, this is the ‘must see show’ of the year.

A lifelong friend of Singer Sargent was Wilfrid Gabriel de Glehn, RA (1870-1951), a display of whose work is on view until 1st March at the arts & antique gallery, David Messum Fine Art, 12 Bury Street, St. James’s, SW1Y 6AB.

Youth, 1925, oil on canvas by Wilfrid de Glehn, David Messum Fine Art

It’s likely that it was through Sargent that de Glehn met the beguiling artist Jane Emmet (1873-1961), who he married in 1904. The couple became frequent travelling companions abroad with Sargent and this exhibition brings together sixty works (priced between £1,250 and £65,000) from the Artists’ Studio Estate, including compositions captured in Venice, Tuscany and Spain. There is also Brittany – Evening, 1893, a rare oil painting (£14,850) dating back to de Glehn’s student days at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. A painter of great versatility, the show features several of de Glehn’s stunning portraits, including Youth, a charming oil painting (£26,500), which was displayed at The British Empire Exhibition in 1925. As expected from David Messum, the event is accompanied by a fully illustrated and highly informative catalogue.

In 1935 Picasso declared: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality.” So, with that in mind, make your way to the Portland Gallery, 3 Bennet Street, SW1A 1RP between 14th February and 1st March. On the art & antiques gallery’s ground floor there are thirty striking works by Martyn Brewster (b. 1952), who encapsulates abstraction elements of the Dorset coast near his home and studio. Using oil on canvas or acrylics and collage, they range from his jewel-toned reflections captured in Ocean Light painted in 2016, to the recent Turquoise Sky, an opulent sunset of blue and red. Make your way down to the Lower Gallery and be beguiled by over thirty paintings (prices range from £1,250 to £6,600) by Liam Hanley (1933-2019), who is best known for his abstracted compositions of the English expansive countryside. Although he studied briefly at the Central School of Art, Hanley was largely self-taught. When he had one of his solo shows at the Thackeray Gallery, London in 1979 he said: “Landscape from the purely pectoral point of view is not what I seek. I am concerned with the land and what man does to it.”

Moonpath over Hertfordshire, gouache by Liam Hanley, Portland Gallery, © Hanley estate

Continuing this months art & antiques round-up on abstract themes, Counterpoint, taking place until 2nd March at the Cristea Roberts Gallery, 43 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5JG, surveys, via fifteen artists, abstract art spanning over seventy years. Among the diverse mix are woodcuts by Naum Gabo (1890-1977), screen prints by Patrick Heron (1920-1999), aquatints by Donald Judd (1928-1994), whilst representing contemporary works are Rana Begum (b. 1977), Julian Opie (b. 1958), Bridget Riley (b. 1931), Sean Scully (b. 1945), Cornelia Thomsen (b. 1970), and the brightly coloured woodcuts of Richard Woods (b. 1966).

Just a few metres away Francesca Fiumano and Andrés Clase are two art & antiques dealers on a mission to support and showcase fresh, exciting talent and until 2nd March they present their fifth Discoveries exhibition at Fiumano Clase, First Floor, 40-41 Pall Mall, St. James’s, SW1Y 5JG. This event showcases four international artists – KV Duong, Nicole Morris, Constanza Pulit and Adrian Ramos – whose intriguing and eclectic creations cover painting, textiles, latex, video and printmaking. Prices range between £700 and £10,000.

Having completed his studies at Glasgow School of Art in 1953, William Crozier (1930-2011) took off to Paris and Dublin for a year before settling in London. Having mounted his first solo show in 1957 the Parton Gallery (renowned for its choice art & antiques) he caused some debate in September, 1958 when London’s Drian Gallery tendered his large collage formed of streaks of paint and pieces of paper stuck on the canvas. Entitled Princess Margaret, Crozier claimed it was “meant to be complimentary.”

William Crozier, Untitled, 1960, courtesy of Piano Nobile

William Crozier: Nature into Abstraction taking place from 14th February to 22nd March at Piano Nobile, 96/129 Portland Road, W11 4LW, proffers over thirty of Crozier’s less controversial works generated between 1958 and 1961. Painted when he was temporarily living in rural north Essex, these daring landscapes express how Crozier walked a tightrope between representation and abstraction.

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Anthony Lester

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