Battle of the Australian Landscape Painters at Menzies Winter Sale

Has Australia decided who our greatest landscape painter is? The AGNSW’s Wynne Prize for landscape does ask this question regularly every year. There is no easy answer, and it depends on whether you are talking about 19th century realist depictions by the likes of Von Guerard and Glover or impressionist visions by Arthur Streeton. In the 20th century modern and contemporary category, Fred Williams, Arthur Boyd and John Olsen would be foremost.

More on this later, but first to the first lot of the 110 lot strong winter offering at Menzies in Sydney.

At auction, bidders will adopt various strategies in the pursuit of securing their dream picture. A knock-out bid is a rarely employed technique and doesn’t guarantee success. However it did for the first lot of the night: Auctioneer Martin Farrah opened the bidding for Dora Wilson’s Baptist Church, Collins Street, 1935 (lot 1) with a massive $17,000 book bid, on estimates of $8,000-$12,000. Total silence ensued in the room, on the phones and the internet, making it indeed a Paris end purchase for the absentee buyer.

Albert Namatjira continues his place in the sun. After prices for his watercolours were slow and steady for the almost two decades hovering around $20,000-$25,000, 2020 saw the start of a substantial increase in values, and in 2022, this resulted in an average price of $50,557 based on the sale of 35 artworks.

Finke River Valley, James Range, circa 1944 (lot 2) sold for $26,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000), while an also 1940s painting Glen Helen Gorge, circa 1941 (lot 3), sold mid-range at $34,000 (est. $30,000-$40,000), and to the same buyer.

A draped bright red flower sarong gave Ray Crooke’s Island Still Life (lot 5) a three dimensional quality which reverberated with collectors on this bleak winter evening. Strongly bid, it sold also mid-range at $34,000 (est. $30,000-$40,0000).

Certainly not your typical landscape from Arthur Boyd, Snow Landscape, Hampstead, circa 1962 (lot 6) was estimated at $40,000-$60,000. It offered a powerful image, however perhaps Australians’ relationship with the British snow is not as powerful, as bidders didn’t show the enthusiasm for it as they did for Crooke’s South Pacific painting.

A more predictable late Shoalhaven painting by Boyd (lot 8) did sell for $22,000, however below its $25,000-$35,000 hopes. It was the same for a bride series painting, Bride in Landscape, c1967 (lot 16) ) which sold for $65,000 on estimates of $70,000-$90,000.

Meanwhile, Boyd’s Figures with a Dog (lot 17) failed to find a pet lover with the required amount for the $90,000-$120,000 estimate.

Hampstead Heath was well and truly left out in the cold with Hampstead Heath, circa 1960 (lot 20) being withdrawn from sale.

However, Arthur Boyd’s colourful and bright Pulpit Rock with Reflections, circa 1990 (lot 22  captured buyers’ imagination again and sold on the lower estimate for $100,000. The rather more challenging and if it could be possible, even more colourful Potter Dreaming of Gold (lot 31) sold for $46,000, slightly below its $50,000-$70,000 estimates.

While the eight Arthur Boyds in the sale met with mixed fates, it was a very different story for another giant of the Australian landscape. Fred Williams’ Tanker Leaving Western Port, circa 1970 (lot 7) turned out to be a relative bargain in hindsight, selling for $32,000 on estimates of $30,000-$40,000.

Lot 21 Fred Williams, Upwey Landscape 1, sold for $120,000 hammer price on estimates of $60,000-$80,000.

And the contrary for Williams’ Upwey Landscape No. 1, 1970 (lot 21). The gouache listed as Property from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was exhibited in “Fred Williams: Landscapes of a Continent” at MOMA in spring 1977. This kind of rare and prestigious provenance was destined to pose a challenge to bidders hoping to secure it for its $60,000-$80,000 estimates. Motivated buyers pushed its value to $120,000, double the low estimates and also the highest price at auction for a Fred Williams gouache.

Williams’ Kew Billabong, 1976 (lot 26) is of the scale and depth expected of a cover lot, and the mauve coloured walls in Menzies’ Kensington Gallery showed it off to its best. Flanked by the MOMA gouache and You Yangs Landscape, 1966 (lot 24), these three presented a true trifecta of Williams’ best museum quality paintings.

Lot 24 sold for $180,000 on estimates of $200,000-$300,000, whilst the cover lot Kew Billabong, estimated at $1 million to $1.2 million, sold for $1 million.

Perhaps we can conclude that quality trumped quantity in this instance and declare Fred Williams the winner over Boyd in the battle of the landscapes.

Two large close-up flower paintings by Tim Maguire from the 1990s sold at what seemed bargain prices, Untitled 94 (lot 13) selling for $30,000, well below the $45,000-$60,000 estimate, and Untitled 1993 (lot 33) selling for just $28,500 on its $60,000-$80,000 hopes.

Speaking of bargains, although at a rather higher price point: Jeffrey Smart’s highly engaging The Bather, Bondi, 1962 (lot 25) had sold in April 2008 for a hammer price of $290,000, prior to his surge in value and the recent retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia, and was somewhat of a coup for Amanda Addams Auctions in Melbourne.

At Menzies last night, although strongly bid, the eventual buyer did not have to pay too much more above the sale price 15 years ago, securing the painting for $360,000 on $300,000-$400,000 estimates.

Whilst Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira’s watercolours are painted in a Westerner’s perspective, John Olsen treated us to a massive aerial view looking down on the expanse of Lake Alexandrina and Dirt Roads, 1997-98 (lot 27). This painting by our recently departed giant of the Australian landscape sold a little under its auction estimates for $225,000 (est. $250,000-$350,000). One of the artist’s favourite subjects followed this: his rarely seen frog sculptures sold for $50,000 on the low estimate for the group of four (lot 28).

The surprise of the evening was the very strong interest in a couple of tug boats. John Perceval’s later paintings exude wonderful joie de vivre with their exuberant colour palette and looser and freer style of painting reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh. Tug Boat Smoke (lot 32) estimated at $40,000-$60,000, revisits his 1950s Williamstown paintings and elicited fierce bidding leading to an impressive $70,000 hammer price.

Similarly, his much smaller Tug Boat, 1990 (lot 83), with the much smaller estimates of $6,000-$9,000, generated even more steam and sold for $26,000.

A new auction record was achieved for Robert Owen’s Afternoon Glow #2, 2003 (lot 38). This striking large abstract lesson in colour enthused numerous bidders, including the gentleman sat next to us who was disappointed, yet philosophical on missing out with the comment that he simply still had a space to fill on his wall. On estimates of $25,000-$35,000, Afternoon Glow #2 sold for $44,000.

The sale total was $4.65 million including buyer’s premium, with 79% of the lots sold by number, and 92% by value.

Article originally published on AASD