A painting inspired by the psychic spirits of dead soldiers and bought by a grieving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who lost a son in WW1 is for sale as part of the Owston Collection in Sydney with Bonhams
on June 25 and 26.
The painting by William Francis (Will) Longstaff (Australian, 1879-1953) titled 'The Rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC)' , is a huge oil on canvas,136 x 270cm (53 9/16 x 106 5/16in) and is estimated to sell for A$20,000-40,000. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purchased the painting directly from the artist for his own collection, 1928.
The painting is an iconic image, believed missing until now, by the Official War Artist, Will Longstaff. It is one of a series of only six paintings which represent the pinnacle of the artist's career, beginning with his best-known work, Menin Gate.
Longstaff had attended the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres on 24 July 1927. He was so moved by the ceremony that, during a midnight walk along the Menin Road, he imagined a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields. It is said that, following his return to London, he painted the work in one session. Mrs Mary Horsburgh, who had worked in a British canteen during the war, may have influenced him. She had met him during this evening walk, and told him that she could feel "her dead boys" all around her. Spiritualism was very much in vogue in the 1920s, and many who wished to communicate with relatives and friends who had died in battle found consolation in its tenets.
`The Rearguard was reported to have been painted under similar psychic influence: "Mr. Longstaff says that he felt an uncanny 'urge' to paint the picture, which formed itself with lightning rapidity in his brain. He began at 7 o'clock in the morning, working unceasingly in the dim light. He had experienced a sensation not felt in any other work, and he was surprised and delighted. "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said 'It is one of the most remarkable pictures I have seen. The artist worked for 11 hours with the fury of inspiration. Genius has always been on the edge of psychic influence.'"
`The Rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC), presents a ghostly array of soldiers lining up near the beach at Gallipoli in the bleak dawn, with departing transports and warships barely visible on the misty horizon.
The subject is probably the most poignant of the series: Longstaff enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the First World War and was himself injured at Gallipoli. The ANZAC tradition; the belief that the First World War, and the Gallipoli Campaign in particular, was a watershed in Australian history, and that those who died on foreign soil did so to create a greater Australia, gave this painting an added, almost religious, significance.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who bought the painting claimed to have had conversations with the spirits of many great men, including Cecil Rhodes, Earl Haig, Joseph Conrad and others. In his later years Sir Arthur often expressed a wish that he should be remembered for his psychic work rather than for his novels. When he celebrated his seventy-first birthday he confessed he was tired of hearing about his celebrated character, Sherlock Holmes. "Holmes is dead," he said. "I have done with him." Ten of Sir Arthur's sixty books are about spiritism.
Bonhams, the international fine art auction house, is to sell the Owston Collection in Sydney on 25th, 26th June. The sale will be held at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. A significant number of items will be offered with `no reserve, providing an extra interest in the sale.
Bonhams won the right to sell the collection in its entirety as a single-owner sale following tough competition from local and international auctioneers. The decision to entrust the sale to Bonhams was made by Stephen Duncan and Chris Powell of KordaMentha in their capacity as Receivers and Managers for Owston Nominees No 2. Pty Ltd.
The Owston Collection includes a stunning array of fine English and Continental Furniture & Works of Art, Silver, Clocks, Australian and European Pictures, Art Nouveau, Aboriginal Art, and Japanese Art. The sale also features highly important Russian furniture and silver. Items from the collection will be shown at Bonhams salerooms in the USA and Europe.