A spate of records among English drawings and watercolourists



Drawings have always been a sound first step for budding collectors in the UK and they look a particularly good bet now, with British works showing spectacular price gains at auction on the back of big price rises for the lesser known artists.

The likelihood of making a profit is greatest in sectors where drawings and watercolours remain relatively cheap and the scope for growth is therefore greater. Britain is the spiritual home of watercolour, and the strongest recent performers have been the nineteenth-century artists, most spectacularly the post-impressionists, who have gained 491% between 1993 and 2003. The same period has also seen strong performances from the pre-Raphaelites of 1848-1890 (244%), eighteenth-century British portraitists (215%), nineteenth-century landscape artists (196%) and British impressionists (158%). The uptrend has remained strong across all segments in 2003 but it has not been the top names that have made the eye-catching sales.

British art movements
Price indices for drawings/watercolors
British movementsPrice indices
base 1993 = 100199820022003British Post impressionism261493592Pre-Raphaelism195213345British Portrait & Conversation piece XVIII119178316British Landscape XIX125154296British Impressionism138183259British Modernists143226232Imaginative et romantic (1760-1830)133133230Britsh Watercolors (1760-1830)126168228British pop art93272204British sporting and animal painters XIX129206132

The most expensive watercolourist, from any period, is the American impressionist James Abbot McNeill WHISTLER whose price index is mainly sustained by the US market. But his index has been on an unbroken decline ever since the record-breaking USD 540,000 sale in New York of Green and Silver, the Bright Sea, Dieppe, in November 2001. As has that of Walter LANGLEY, the second most expensive. Conversely, the last few years have seen solid gains by less pricey English impressionists, such as Laura KNIGHT (whose index doubled in 2003) and Walter Richard SICKERT.
The story is the same for the Pre-Raphaelites. The movement’s two stars, Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI and Edward Coley BURNE-JONES, have slipped in value while the overall price index for the movements’ drawings and watercolours rose by 61% in 2003. Among the best pre-Raphaelite performances we note the GBP 50,000 record paid for Marie STILLMAN’s The Childhood of Saint Cecily (1883), on 26 November 2003 at Christie’s, and the GBP 34,000 for Francis Bernard DICKSEE’s Study for the Head of the Damsel in Chivalry, in February 2003.

Among recent records for drawings and watercolours, Robert Polhill BEVAN’s The Horse Mart, Barbican (c.1920) was sold at Christie’s for GBP 105,000 on June 6, Joshua REYNOLDSPortrait of the artist aged seventeen went for GBP 180,000 at Sotheby’s London, also in June, and John CONSTABLE’s Bow View of HMS victory in the Medway went for GBP 180,000, on March 19 at Sotheby’s.
But Constable’s works on paper still cannot command the prices of England’s other great landscapist, Joseph Mallord William TURNER, whose subtle watercolours often go for more than GBP 200,000. In November 2003, Study of Sea and Sky off Margate went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London for GBP 230,000.
The priciest of the portraitists remains Thomas GAINSBOROUGH. But his works are already so expensive that we see little prospect of rapid gains — over the last 10 years Gainsboroughs have risen by just 33%. In drawings, high prices do not necessarily make for big profits.