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Water colours

One art column I always enjoy is by Colin Gleadell in the Telegraph every Tuesday on the sale rooms and auctions. Perhaps more than any arts or indeed investment market, which it is increasingly resembling, it is subject to the vagaries of fashion.

Hans Makart [see The Death of Cleopatra, above] was the court painter of the Hasburg Empire and in his hey day in the 1890s the best-known artist in the world and his aspiring deputy was Gustav Klimt.

Klimt broke away from convention and his mapped out career to paint those swirling and colourful representations of women when he formed the secessionist movement.

Now no one has heard of Makart but Klimt’s paintings have hit the $100m mark.

Ever heard of Frank Branwin? He was in the early 1920s the richest and most sought-after artist in the world.

More interesting for me is how in twenty years time the star of Brit Art’s Damien Hirst will fare in price and reputation. Hirst himself buys the classic masters .

In his latest column Colin Gleadell refers to the popularity of English water colours and the prices they fetched in the 1990s. This popularity does not exist today.

Water colours suffer from two problems. First, they are regarded as the field of the amateur, unlike oils. Second, there is the practical problem of fading in sunlight.

Christopher Wood (self portrait)

If you remove the glass you are likely to remove the colour too. I once had to advise a friend who wanted to buy a Christopher Wood water colour of Brighton for £30,000. Wood ‘s reputation is difficult to assess as he died young aged 29 by his own hand and he is as well-known for the artistic circles he inhabited in the Paris set of  Picasso and Diaghilev in the 1920s and subsequently the Cornish one of Winifred and Ben Nicholson.

At his best Wood is very good but my friend wanted to hang the water colour in a southern facing gallery which attracts a lot of sunlight. There was the possibility of damage so he would need a protective glass shield outside the picture to avoid this. Yet watercolour is not an easy medium as – unlike oils – you cannot go back and alter the composition.

Wood also was not such an established name to guarantee continued increase in price like say Picasso.

With Picasso Christie’s  have latched on the appetite with quarterly auctions for his ceramics, once highly affordable, but in a recent sale in New York a ceramic bowl, which was not an original but an edition, went under the hammer for $55000. Time was – and this was not so long ago – when you could have acquired this for $250.

Some artists like Botticelli have to wait centuries to achieve the eminence they have today. I find this cyclical transition in reputation a fascinating aspect of the art world which is why I enjoy Gleadell’s accounts of the sale rooms and auction houses so much.


About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts