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Rare Work that Sheds Fascinating Light on British Delegation to China in 1954 to Be Shown at Sotheby's
Stanley Spencer’s Ming Tombs. Photo: Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s announces the Hong Kong exhibition, between 1 – 6 April 2011, of a rare work that sheds fascinating light on a little-known British delegation to China in 1954 – just five years after the new People’s Republic of China was established – and well before the famous Nixon visit of 1972. The painting, Ming Tombs (estimated at £80,000-120,000/ HK$1-1.5 million*), by celebrated British artist Stanley Spencer – who came to be regarded in China as an English equivalent of Qi Baishi - forms part of the greatest collection of 20th-Century British Art ever to come to the market: The Evill/Frost Collection. The auction will be held as a stand-alone three-part sale which launches with an Evening Sale on Wednesday 15th June 2011 at Sotheby’s London.

This incomparable collection comprises outstanding works of the highest calibre by Modern British masters including the most important – and largest – group of paintings by Stanley Spencer ever to come to the market. The sizeable group of works by Spencer, unprecedented at auction, includes a painting executed during his groundbreaking visit to China as a guest of Chou En-lai in 1954, during which Stanley Spencer came to be known by his Chinese hosts as an English equivalent of Qi Baishi.

Patti Wong, Chairman, Sotheby’s Asia, comments: ‘The 15th Century Ming Dynasty Imperial Tombs outside Beijing are one of the most majestic and historic of Chinese monuments and rank amongst my favourites. I was totally intrigued to find out that this picture was painted by Stanley Spencer when he visited Beijing in 1954, only five years after the new People’s Republic of China was established. For an artist who had spent most of his life in the small British town of Cookham, coming to China must have been extraordinary at the time. I was also captivated to discover that Chou En-lai actually invited Spencer as part of a larger British delegation to China - this was well before the famous visit by Richard Nixon and his entourage in 1972, and therefore Spencer’s picture symbolizes an incredibly early moment in the new Republic’s relationship with the West.’

The sale also includes works by Lucian Freud, Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Graham Sutherland, Edward Burra and Patrick Heron, amongst many others. The collection – which is estimated to fetch in excess of £12 million and comprises not only 20th-century British art but also furniture and porcelain – will be sold by the executors of the Honor Frost estate in order to benefit charitable causes relating to marine archaeology.

Stanley Spencer’s Trip to China, 1954
One of the most important yet elusive British artists of the twentieth century, Stanley Spencer R.A. (1891-1959) was an artist from the small English village of Cookham. It is all the more remarkable then that Spencer travelled in September 1954 as an invited guest of the Communistled government in Peking. Together with a delegation of notable British figures, including former Prime Minister Clement Atlee, as well as a mixed group of scientists, artists, architects and writers, Stanley Spencer travelled as a representative of the British arts and sciences. Stanley Spencer was welcomed by his Chinese hosts, who came to regard him as an old master, an English equivalent of Qi Baishi. The comparison no doubt pleased Spencer, who had visited the Chinese master and had come away full of admiration. So great, in fact, was Spencer’s admiration, that while the other delegates on the trip went out shopping for silk and other souvenirs, Spencer spent his Chinese money on three paintings by Qi Baishi and had them sent back to his home in Cookham.

On the delegation’s arrival in Peking, a great deal of the first week was spent sightseeing. The groups were dazzled and amazed by the ancient Chinese places they visited. On one day the group was equipped with masks against the dust and driven to the Great Wall of China, and after wondering at the structure unraveling across the landscape, they were driven on to the valley of the Ming Tombs, which one of the party described as 'perhaps in their setting the most beautiful works of architecture I saw in China’. Stanley Spencer wrote to friends declaring, 'But the great thing of yesterday was the Ming Tombs, and becoming personally acquainted with that lovely double row of animals. Oh they are wonderful.' Stanley Spencer’s Ming Tombs painting was painted in response to the emotional impact of the tombs, their sense of permanence and position in the landscape. Although Spencer drew many portraits during his visit, this is one of only two oil paintings executed in situ. The other painting, The Minister's Ming Tombs, Peking, was acquired by the UK’s Government Art Collection in 2008 and was loaned to the ambassador's residence in Beijing where it was hung during the Olympics.

Spencer's trip to China included a notorious visit to Chou En-lai's residence where he welcomed the delegation. Chou looked forward to a future of cooperation, in which the two world systems might advance in communication rather than continued ideological warfare. He concluded his presentation with the encouraging suggestion: 'We are new friends, but new friends can be old friends.' He then invited the delegates to share their impressions of China and their views about how a new Anglo-Chinese cultural exchange might be made into a reality. The ensuing silence was broken by Stanley Spencer, and there are various versions of what Spencer said. According to his brother, Spencer stepped in and responded warmly to Chou En-lai's declaration that the Chinese were a 'home-loving people' by stating 'So am I... it took China to get me away from Cookham'. And responding to Chou En-lai's comment about 'New China' Spencer responded 'Yes... we ought to know the New China better. And the New China ought to know Cookham better. I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near.' The sentiments may have seemed inconclusive to some of the delegates, but apparently Chou En-lai responded warmly.


Wilfrid Evill and Honor Frost
The paintings and sculptures, collected by Wilfrid Evill between 1925 and 1960 and then vigilantly maintained by Honor Frost, represent a window for the collectors of today to look into a past world, and the dispersal of this collection offers those same collectors opportunities that appear perhaps only once in a lifetime – to acquire the very best. The assemblage demonstrates an unparalleled vision of the achievements and talent of some of the most accomplished British artists in the period just before and after World War II.

A discreet but widely respected connoisseur, Wilfrid Evill was a London solicitor who represented several artists including Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland – along with a number of other notable names such as Evelyn Waugh. When Evill died in 1963 he bequeathed his estate, together with his extraordinary collection of paintings and works of art, to his long-time ward Honor Frost. A fascinating woman in her own right, Honor is perhaps best known for her work in the field of marine archaeology, pioneering its pursuit as a scientific discipline.

Further Highlights from the Collection to be Exhibited in Hong Kong

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
Oil on canvas, 70.5 by 107.5cm
Estimate: £1,000,000-1,500,000 /HK$12,630,000-18,940,000

Executed in 1937, this is one of the most mystical expressions of Spencer’s harmonious vision of the world, where mankind, animals and plants exist in unity. The painting was first acquired by Sir Hugh Walpole, who purchased it within just two hours of its exhibition in December 1937. Disappointed at having missed it, Evill was able to buy it from Walpole some seven years later for £100. It is now estimated at £1,000,000-1,500,000.

Henry Moore (1898-1986)
WOMEN WINDING WOOL; Executed in 1794
Pencil, wax crayon, coloured crayon, watercolour and gouache,
39.5 by 49cm
Estimate: £200,000-300,000 / HK$2,530,000-3,790,000

One of the most celebrated British sculptors of the 20th century, Henry Moore’s work springs from his fascination with the human form, which he depicts – or sculpts – in an endless variety of abstract forms. This remarkable drawing shows Moore combining everyday imagery with an interest in classical sculpture and mythology. The work also demonstrates his interest in the interplay of figure groups, which can also be seen in his Family Group sculptures of the same period.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999)
Oil on canvas, 102 by 127 cm
Estimate: £250,000-350,000 /

An important early work by Patrick Heron - the celebrated English painter, writer and designer – Blue Table with Window: 1954 demonstrates Heron’s interest in Cubist artists such as Georges Braque. It also shows him using a marvellous range of technique, mixing the calligraphic element of drawing in charcoal on the canvas and then manipulating the areas of colour to act in harmony whilst retaining their independence.

* Estimates do not include buyer’s premium

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