The Joy of Christmas Trees and Cards

Rupert Toovey’s Alessi Nativity Christmas baubles

Christmas seems to be arriving at great speed this year. I haven’t even finished my Christmas cards yet let alone begun the wrapping up. But at least our Christmas tree is up!

You probably have a beautifully themed tree with a colour scheme, matching baubles and accessories but mine, I have to own, is rather more of a tinsel rush with lots of sparkly lights. Each bauble encapsulates a precious memory like Betty Southall’s marvellous gold, spray painted and glitter encrusted pine cone. It has matching wire sprays capped with imitation pearls which makes it look like a firework. Bless her, Betty was an avid auction goer years ago and would often be seen racing into the saleroom car park in her sky blue Morris Traveller trying not to be late for a lot or a party.

My favourite baubles though are a set of Alessi ones modelled as the Nativity. They are particularly precious because they were a Christmas present from my family. Designed by Laura Polinoro and Marcello Jori they’re joyful. The face of the baby Jesus smiles out from a bundle of hay, Mary is dressed in Marian blue and Joseph in red. I love the look of surprise on the donkey’s face – and those ears!

Alessi is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The company was founded by the Italian born Giovanni Alessi in 1921. The company followed in the footsteps of Giovanni’s father Carlo. From the 1970s Alberto Alessi collaborated with a number of leading designers including Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves and Philippe Starck. Following in the footsteps of the Victorian designer Dr Christopher Dresser they once again combined art and design with the manufacture of domestic objects. From the moment these iconic Alessi pieces were released they became collectors’ items.

The tree is done so Christmas cards next.

A pen and ink Christmas card design by Dame Laura Knight

Over the years it has always been exciting to discover for auction Christmas cards from some of the country’s most prominent artists. These drawings and prints are often very intimate and personal like the pen and ink drawing by Dame Laura Knight. The card is dedicated to Gladys and Saxen Snell. The Female Nude holds a scroll inscribed ‘With our fondest love and best wishes for a Happy Xmas, Laura’.

Laura Knight was part of the English Impressionist movement. She worked in the figurative, realist tradition from the early 20th century and became one of the most popular modern British artists of her generation raising the status and recognition of women artists in a male dominated arena.

Christmas trees provide such joy and cards an expression of love – antidotes to the rising concerns around our Christmas plans especially in the light of Omicron. Stay safe.

The Artistic Voice of Women in the 20th century

Laura Knight – ‘Sleeping Dancer’, monochrome drypoint etching, signed in pencil recto © Toovey’s 2021

One of the exciting aspects of modern British Art from the early 20th century was the emergence of a generation of gifted female artists. Although they faced challenges their artistic voices were increasingly celebrated.

Today there is a growing interest and demand for works by prominent women artist at auction, the prints you see here sold at Toovey’s for £1100 and £4500.
Laura Knight (1877-1970) was part of the English Impressionist movement. She worked in the figurative, realist tradition and became one of the most popular modern British artists of her generation raising the status and recognition of women artists in a male dominated arena.

Laura Knight’s subjects included studies of Gypsies, Circus performers and figures from the world of theatre and ballet in London. She worked in oil and watercolour as well as producing etchings, drypoints and engravings. She was inspired not only by the glamour of the theatre but also the domestic aspects of stage life which she depicted with intimacy and sensitivity.

The drypoint etching ‘Sleeping Dancer’ captures a young woman too tired after her performance to change asleep in a wicker chair. She is framed by her full-skirted tutu which spreads out behind her framing this unguarded scene.

Sybil Andrews – The Giant Cable, linocut, signed and editioned in pencil © Toovey’s 2021

Sybil Andrews (1898-1992) is another highly sought after modern British female artist. She began making linocuts after attending Claude Flight’s classes at The Grosvenor School of Modern Art in 1925. She had moved to London with the artist and architect Cyril Powers in 1922.

The school promoted elements of Cubism, Futurism and English Vorticism to capture the dynamism and movement of the machine age. The Vorticists lacked the romanticism of the Post Impressionists and European Cubists. Although harsher in nature it never reached the aggressive extremes of the Italian Futurists led by Marinetti. Founded in 1914 the Vorticist movement was short lived. Its main proponent Wyndham Lewis and others were profoundly affected by their experience of the Great War. Demoralised, there was a sense that the aggressive qualities of their art had, in some way, been prophetic.

Sybil Andrews’ linocut The Giant Cable illustrates the Vorticist cubist fragmentation of reality with its hard edged imagery derived from the machine and urban environment. It is typical of the way Sybil Andrews captures scenes filled with movement, both human and mechanical. It illustrates her bold use of geometric forms and vibrant flat colours in dramatic arrangements. The figures seem to rotate, caught up in the centrifugal force of the cable drum which the artist uses to create the illusion of movement.

Art so often reflects its own times giving voice to social and economic change in society. These two beautifully conceived, powerful images highlight the importance of women artists in the 20th century and their appeal to collectors today.

I am looking forward to Toovey’s next specialist sale of prints which, Covid willing, will be held on Wednesday 17th March 2021.

Maynard Keynes, The Great Economist

Laura Knight – Madonna (Head Study of the Dancer, Lydia Lopokova), etching circa 1923, signed in pencil

On the 21st April 1946 The Times reported ‘Lord Keynes, the great economist, died at Tilton, Firle, Sussex, yesterday from a heart attack.’

John Maynard Keynes was a man of great energy, imagination and enterprise. He was born on the 5th June 1883. Educated at Eton he won a scholarship to King’s College Cambridge where he read mathematics and the classics whilst also studying philosophy and economics.

Keynes’s genius was expressed in important contributions to the fundamentals of economic science. He was able to make his theories accessible to the public and was a gifted writer.

As the most frequent visitor to Charleston House in Sussex Keynes was given his own room. Although his love affair with Duncan Grant had ended in 1909 their friendship endured. Maynard Keynes would remain an important figure in the lives of both Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.

As the Great War came to an end and the armistice was declared Keynes would divide his time between France and Charleston as he worked on the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919.

Keynes strongly disagreed with the reparations being proposed against Germany believing they would negatively affect the world and economy. Following his resignation from the British delegation he lived predominately at Charleston where he wrote his famous denunciation of the Peace Treaty, The Economic Consequences of Peace which you see illustrated. Keynes was a great bibliophile so it is fitting that his own books are highly sort after.

In 1925 Keynes married the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova of the Diaghilev Company. Laura Knight’s sensitive portrayal in the etched portrait from 1923 depicts Lydia as the Madonna. Her face displays a strength and vulnerability. There is a rising demand for women artists like Laura Knight.
Both were sold at Toovey’s for £800 and £2300 respectively.

John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. London: Macmillan & Co., 1919. First edition

Keynes’s experience of the Great War and of economic depression caused him to reconsider traditional economic theories. He concluded that for a free market system to work at optimum capacity and provide full-employment it would be necessary to have deliberate central control of interest rates and, in some cases, to stimulate capital development.

Keynes would have a great influence after the Second World War ensuring that the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty were not repeated.

Ordinary Englishmen could not return from war a second time to be deprived of work, security and appropriate housing. The bloodless revolution of the Post-War Labour government with its radical redistribution of wealth through inheritance tax at 80% and general taxation may have pre-empted revolution of a bloodier kind. It brought with it the NHS and extended the Welfare State.

Keynes understood that this would inevitably undermine private patronage of the arts. He became Chairman of CEMA in 1942 and the fledgling Arts Council in 1945, as well as introducing resident artists at universities and working with theatres.

I have often wondered whether it was his relationships with Duncan Grant, Lydia Lopokova and his unconsummated, flirtatious affection for Vanessa Bell which influenced his love of the arts, of which he was a tireless advocate and supporter. The great economist was never happier than when in the company of his artistic friends especially here in Sussex.

Governments, including our own, seem to once again be embracing Keynesian economics as they seek to create capital investment in emerging technologies and optimum capacity and employment in their economies.

Virginia Woolf’s writings are an inspiration

Dame Laura Knight, The Dark Pool (1908–1918), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle © Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE, RA, 2018. All Rights Reserved

This summer’s must see exhibition in Sussex has just opened at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. It is titled ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’.

Inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), it explores women’s suffrage and the metaphors of landscape, the room and still lives; bringing together more than eighty works by leading Modern British and Contemporary women artists. The exhibition is born out of a partnership between Tate St Ives, Pallant House Gallery and The Fitzwilliam.

This visually stunning, light-filled show is beautifully curated and hung. The domestic scale of many of the paintings and objects are brought to life at Pallant House as the narrative of the exhibition cleverly unfolds in a series of rooms.
Although this is not a biographical exhibition it illustrates how Virginia Woolf constantly drew on her relationships and experiences in her writing to articulate a sense of self and place.

In her early childhood she spent every summer at Talland House in St Ives. She would recall how formative these early recollections were in A Sketch of the Past: ‘…lying half-asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery of St Ives…hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind.’ Laura Knight’s oil painting, The Dark Pool similarly captures a fascination with the sea as a young woman stands on the rocks beside a shore looking reflectively into the pool’s depths, free in her thoughts. For Woolf the Landscape would often become a metaphor for a new freedom and power for women. In contrast through the metaphor of the room she would express the ambiguity in a place of potential autonomy and liberation which also symbolised societal restraint over women at the time.

Vanessa Bell, View of the Pond at Charleston, East Sussex, c.1919, oil on canvas, Museums Sheffield © Estate of Vanessa Bell / Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa Bell’s outward facing, liberated oil of the Pond at Charleston in Sussex is filled with light, movement and hope. It combines the landscape, room and still life.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell were sisters and throughout their lives they inspired and influenced each other’s work. They gathered around them a circle of influential Modern British women artists, many of whom are represented in the show.

Sussex, like Cornwall, played a significant part in Woolf’s life and work. Indeed Vanessa Bell only moved to Charleston in 1916 on her sister’s recommendation. The house would become a meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group.

In 1919 Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard bought Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell in East Sussex where she would live until her suicide in 1941. This 17th century cottage allowed her to write in the tranquillity of the Sussex Downs near to her elder sister Vanessa Bell who was extremely important to Woolf’s sense of her own self and wellbeing. Woolf loved to discuss art with her sister. This desire to learn was both personal and intellectual. It brought her closer to her sister and artistic friends who included Dora Carrington, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the author Vita Sackville-West.

I am delighted that Toovey’s, together with De’Longhi and Irwin Mitchell, are amongst the headline sponsors and supporters of this exceptional exhibition. ‘Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings’ runs at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester throughout the summer until 16th September 2018.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.