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Contemporary Art Rather Than Rembrandt?

  • November 19, 2023
  • 7 min read
Contemporary Art Rather Than Rembrandt?

by Anthony J Lester

The art world loves a good story. The most venerated are those relating to sleepers – works of art that turn up mis-catalogued at auction and the dilemma is “could it be a …?” On 6th December, Sotheby’s evening auction of ‘Old Master & 19th Century Paintings’ includes, ‘The Adoration of the Kings’, oil on oak panel by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). In the 1950s this painting was deemed to be by the master and was exhibited as such in three exhibitions in Netherlands museums. However, over the years opinions radically changed and when Christie’s, Amsterdam offered it for sale in 2021 it was contemptuously catalogued as ‘circle of Rembrandt’ and sold for £731,605 (including premium). ‘Circle of …’ signifies the work is merely of the period and in the style of the artist. Following the picture’s cleaning and detailed scrutiny via infra-red imaging, experts now concede the small nocturne Biblical scene is an indisputable work of the late 1620s by Rembrandt. This time around it is anticipated to make up to £15 million!

Perhaps your penchant is for contemporary art rather than Rembrandt, if so, a visit to Cork Street might be exciting. Located to the north of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy, this illustrious Street was once the home of bespoke tailoring, frequented by the likes of the infamous dandy Beau Brummell (1778-1840). Later, the tailoring trade moved to nearby Savile Row. January, 1925 brought a dramatic transformation for Cork Street when Fred Mayor (1902-1973) opened a gallery at number 18. This motivated others – in 1938 the legendary American art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) launched her gallery at No. 30 Cork Street. At one time there were over twenty independent art dealers operating from the street making it the epicentre of the capital’s contemporary art scene. However, in 2012 the artistic hub came under threat from developers, who had plans to redevelop the entire street with luxury flats and boutiques. After protests from the likes of David Hockney and Sir Peter Blake the street remains the domicile of some of London’s primary art dealers.

Having been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including first prize in the 2001 BP Portrait awards and having thirty-one of his paintings acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, Stuart Pearson Wright (b. 1975) can justifiably be regarded as one of Britain’s foremost portrait painters. Until 25th November his engaging images are on view at the Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, W1S 3LZ. In 2014 Wright moved from East London to rural Suffolk and the area’s surrounding folklore and mythology have become a key motif in his recent work. The figure of a ghostly black dog said to roam the East Anglian coastline crops up repeatedly in the exhibits. However, portraits remain the exhibition’s central ideology.

Since 1958 a name synonymous with the street is Waddington. Until 27th January, 2024 Waddington Custot, 11 Cork Street, W1S 3LT displayed the abstract sculptures and paintings of Greek artist Sophia Vari (1940-2023). Offering an overview of her work from the past two decades, it includes Pleine Lune and Joie de vivre, two of Vari’s final sculptures in carved marble.

In my view Peter Brown (b. 1967) is one of the most consummate, tonally controlled plein air painters of his generation and therefore I fervently advocate a visit to Messums, London, 28 Cork Street, W1S 3NG. Between 22nd November-23rd December ‘Pete the Street’ as he is affectionately known, showcases fifty of his stunning paintings of London. All painted in situ, whatever the time of day or weather conditions, locations embrace the likes of Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, Marble Arch and Primrose Hill. Others vividly record momentous events such as Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee and the coronation of King Charles III. Given the prodigious genius of Brown’s brushwork prices seem modest at between £2,250 to £15,000.

The reputation of Cork Street as an art nucleus was further enhanced this year with the opening of three galleries – Alison Jacques has an impressive 6,000 sq.ft. space at No. 22; the Stephen Friedman Gallery have relocated from Old Burlington Street to No 5-6 Cork Street and leaders in the representation of visual arts practice from Africa and its global diaspora, Tiwani Contemporary, are at No. 24. 

For something completely different, make your way to Sam Fogg, 15D Clifford Street, W1S 4JZ, situated just around the corner from Cork Street. One of the world’s foremost dealers in the art of the European Middle Ages, Fogg’s current display which ends on 1st December, focuses on Islam in Europe. Among the highlights is a stunning Spanish Lustred Charger dating to around 1470-1500 and a Arabic manuscript, circa 1300-1325.  

Staying in Mayfair, here are a couple of other events that you might wish to investigate. Now in its 10th year, the Flux Exhibition, 178 St. James, Piccadilly, has established itself as an important platform for contemporary artists and offers punters the opportunity to gain access to gifted, but currently little-known artists, who, feasibly, will be the big names of tomorrow. This inspirational art happening is the brainchild of Liza Gray, who selects around 70 artists she deems worthy of higher recognition. Taking place between 7th-10th December, the venue is opposite the Royal Academy. 

Founded in 1891 the illustrious Chelsea Arts Club, 143 Old Church Street, has always been an influential nucleus for artistic discussion and creativity. It was here, in 1989, that a group of artists instigated The Small Paintings Group, the crucial parameters being, membership is limited to 35 and paintings exhibited with the Group must not be larger than 12 by 12 inches. Since their inaugural show in 1991, they have mounted over fifty exhibitions with their latest presentation taking place between 29th November to 8th December at Panter and Hall, 11-12 Pall Mall, SW1Y 5LU. PJ Crook (b. 1945) shows work as an invited artist.

The insatiable demand for items associated with celebrities shows no sign of waning. On 4th October, Bonhams offered the Sir Roger Moore: The Personal Collection – ranging from modest items such as Moore’s Garrick Club salmon pink and green silk tie which raised £4,096, to his conspicuous mid-1990s Omega stainless steel automatic triple calendar wristwatch selling for £61,360. 

Moore played James Bond in seven films, more than any other actor in the Aeon series and the sale coincided with the 50th anniversary year of Sir Roger Moore’s first appearance as 007 in Live and Let Die. Bond fanatics have the opportunity to bid for film posters at Ewbank’s, Burnt Common Auction Rooms, London Road, Send, Woking, GU23 7LN. On 16th and 17th November, the firm is tendering The Steve Oxenrider James Bond Collection. This notable assemblage includes the bold British Double Crown Advance Style, a film poster for From Russia with Love (1964) and the scarce Advance British Quad film poster for Thunderball (1965) – with two panels designed by Frank McCarthy (1924-2002) and two by Robert McGinnis (b. 1926), the intention was the poster would be cut into four pieces (very few survived, complete or otherwise). On 1st December Ewbank’s conduct a sale of Vintage Posters, including artwork by Brian Bysouth (b. 1936), who is responsible for some of the most iconic film posters ever printed.

Posters can also be discovered at the Pullman Gallery, 14 King Street, St. James’s, SW1Y 6QU. Situated next to Christie’s auction rooms, the business offers an eclectic selection of late 19th and 20th century collectables, including posters such as the immensely rare ‘Bugatti Type 35’ by Roger Soubie (1898-1984) and ‘Palace Hotel, St. Moritz’ a poster of circa 1920 by Emil Cardinaux (1877-1936).

And whilst on the poster theme, the London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB has just opened the Global Poster Gallery. Set over two floors it displays a selection from the museum’s remarkable collection of over 30,000 advertising posters, including the Underground’s first pictorial poster titled ‘No need to ask a p’liceman’, designed by John Hassall (1868-1948) in 1908. 

Anthony J. Lester, FRSA

lesterartcritic@eyeonlondon.online

Large brass and silver salver, circa 1500-1525, Sam Fogg

CUPKAKE [FOOD FOR THOUGHT I] PROTOTYPE – Flux Exhibition, credits – The DnA Factory MRSS

October Half Term, Trafalgar Square, oil on canvas by Peter Brown (b. 1967), Messums London

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