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Sotheby's unveils a group of Modern British art from the Dartington Hall Trust Collection
Ben Nicholson, 1930/1 (Charbon), est. £250,000-350,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby's announces the sale of a remarkable group of works by British artists on behalf of The Dartington Hall Trust, to be sold as part of Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century British Art on Wednesday, 16th November 2011. The works, comprising paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and ceramics by artists including Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Winifred Nicholson and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, have been carefully selected by The Dartington Hall Trust. The discrete selection of 40 works comes from a much larger and important collection built up by progressive collectors Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, the founders of the visionary Dartington Hall Trust, which was established in 1925.

Vaughan Lindsay, Chief Executive Officer of The Dartington Hall Trust, comments: “We have defined a core collection of works which will remain at Dartington and represents the major artists who worked here, whom Dorothy Elmhirst collected or who have some special link to the history of Dartington. The works to be sold at Sotheby's have been selected to raise sufficient funds to allow the Trust to continue its experimental work in the arts, social justice and sustainability, while still retaining a significant and attractive collection to inspire artists and visitors.”

Frances Christie, Sotheby’s Director and Specialist in Modern & Post-War British Art said: “Sotheby’s is honoured to be offering works from such a landmark collection of Modern British Art to the auction market for the first time. Collected by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, the works are compelling visual symbols of their many relationships with some of the most significant artistic figures living and working in this country during the Inter-war period. Many of the works were acquired directly from the artists and have never previously been offered for sale.”

Sale Highlights
In 1931 Dorothy Elmhirst wrote excitedly to her husband about “a young English painter who is the real thing. His name is Ben Nicholson…” She immediately acquired several of his works and invited Nicholson to speak at Dartington in 1935. Ben Nicholson’s 1930/31 (Charbon) is undoubtedly one of the most important works by the artist from this early period ever to come to the market. The painting, (est. £250,000-350,000) marks a key pivotal point in the development of his style. The confident, yet stylized line which simplifies the still life objects to their most pared back form undoubtedly represents a climax of Nicholson's early style. It is a testament to the Elmhirsts’ discerning eye that they bought the painting, an exceptional example of Nicholson’s distinctive reductive treatment of form.

Christopher Wood’s 1930 painting, Pony and trap, Ploaré, Brittany (est. £150,000-250,000) is among a rare group of works which demonstrate the development of Wood's work shortly before his death. Their lyrical qualities, sensual colours and distinct interpretations of mood are redolent of his artistic maturity. Perspective is distorted and proportions exaggerated to express Wood’s own interpretation of the scene. In their vitality, enjoyment and passion, Wood’s works seem to embody a set of values held high by the Elmhirsts. His work is infused with uninhibited feeling and expression, principles which were fundamental to the couple and which they aimed to instil in their pupils at Dartington in a challenge to contemporary education. Explaining his motivations for purchasing Wood’s work, Leonard Elmhirst wrote: “One of the hopes that Mrs Elmhirst and I have of rescuing Mr Wood’s name for posterity, is that two or three people should have enough of his pictures to give a real conception of the breadth of his work…”

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s alabaster sculpture Boy (est. £120,000-180,000), executed circa 1913, is among the artist’s most accomplished works from a period in which he turned his primary focus to carving. Prior to this date the majority of his sculptures were modelled in clay. Boy was exhibited at a show with the Grafton Group in 1914 as part of a small group of works that reflected the sculptor’s interest in looking to non-western sources for inspiration, such as the African and Oceanic wooden sculptures he had studied in the British Museum. Jim Ede, founder of Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, wrote to Dorothy Elmhirst in 1964 requesting the opportunity to cast the present work in bronze, and although this request was initially refused, three casts of the work were produced in December 1968. One of the casts was kept by Ede at Kettle's Yard and another was gifted to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris.

The raw creativity and untutored directness of retired Cornish mariner Alfred Wallis’s work is exemplified in A Fishing Boat off the Coast (estimated £30,000-50,000). In this painting Wallis’ use of scrap materials creates a dynamic interaction between the board, the unpainted background and the paint surface. In 1935, the Elmhirsts’ friend and Tate Curator, Jim Ede wrote to Dorothy: “I wonder if you would like a batch of pictures by Alfred Wallis? Anyhow I sent for some for you and am posting them on. They would be £3 the lot! If you don't like them, forgive me and post them back – but if you would get your people to frame them up like the one I brought you, you will find that they suddenly look no end good.” The Elmhirsts, were thrilled with the works and with Wallis’ instinctive and naïve draughtsmanship.

Winifred Nicholson is best known for her vibrant still lives of flowers and Ragged Robin, (estimated at £50,000-80,000), an oil on canvas, executed circa 1930, demonstrates her distinctively luminous palate and almost Gauguin-esque sense of design. The artist drew on the theme of flowers throughout her career, having become entranced by the subject in the early 1920s while living with her husband Ben Nicholson in Switzerland. She particularly focused on the subject matter during her time spent at Villa Capricco in Lugano and in the rural countryside of Cumberland and this work is a quintessential example of this type. These paintings mark a distinctive period in Winifred’s career, prior to her divorce and to her time spent in Paris, where the focus of her work became briefly more abstracted.

Dartington and the British Studio Ceramics Movement
Dartington’s association with studio pottery dates back to 1932, when Bernard Leach, the most significant figure in the development of studio pottery, set up a studio there at the instigation of Leonard Elmhirst, who was looking for a potter to become part of the community of artists and creators. Combining his passion for the art of pottery, with an interest in producing well-made and functional useable ware, Leach’s work at Dartington forged the blueprint that has become the credo of generations of potters since. The 1952 Dartington Conference of Potters was an important landmark in the history of British ceramics, providing a forum for the discussion of craft in the modern world. The sale features works by many of the leading 20th Century ceramicists working in Britain, including Leach, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Shoji Hamada. Highlights include Bernard Leach’s stoneware tenmoku-glaze Tea Caddy estimated at £700-£900 and Hans Coper’s Early and Large Barrel-Shaped Vase Form, executed in the early to mid-1950s, estimated at £6,000-9,000.

The Dartington Hall Trust
Founded in 1925 by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst and based near Totnes in South Devon, The Dartington Hall Trust is a pioneering charity − a place of experiment, enterprise and education where the arts, social justice and sustainability come together on a 1200 acre estate in the heart of Devon. The exemplary collection of pictures, sculptures and ceramics which the Elmhirsts put together provides a powerful visual story of what is undoubtedly one of the most progressive and innovative ventures in the arts and education of the inter-war period. During the 1930s, the experimental spirit of Dartington attracted parents such as Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and Ernst Freud to enrol their children at the school. Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth later sent their triplets to Dartington and Hepworth affirmed that “we owe so much to Dartington Hall”.

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