When an out-of- fashion artist becomes the subject of a big exhibition in central London organised by one of shrewdest collectors around, the art world sits up and takes notice. Either he is barking mad, or he is actually on to something, they will say.
The Encounter CREDIT: JOHN BELLANY
A case in point is the opening this week of an exhibition of over fifty paintings and drawings at Fortnum & Mason by the neglected Scottish painter, John Bellany, which has been organised by the ebullient Mancunian collector, Frank Cohen. Bellany was all the rage in the 60s and 70s, on a par with London School painters, Lucian Freud or Leon Kossoff, with his tough expressionistic figurative painting full of life, love and death symbols derived from his tough Calvinistic upbringing in a Scottish fishing village, and heavily influenced by his visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1967. He was likened to the great German expressionist, Max Beckman, and lots of eminent people and institutions bought his work (David Bowie, Billy Connolly and virtually every UK museum). In 1986 he became the first living artist to be given a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery.
Celtic Maiden CREDIT: JOHN BELLANY
However, his success led to money which led to alcoholism, which led to overproduction and loss of critical status, a near death from liver failure. By the time he died in 2013 his market had sunk virtually without trace – his auction record static since 2007 at a mere £24,500 . What is interesting is that a canny collector like Cohen, not a gallery or museum, is backing him to make a comeback.
Cohen discovered Bellany, he says, about eight years ago on a visit to Damien Hirst’s studio in Gloucestershire, where he saw a group of powerful expressionistic paintings by an artist he had never seen before. “What the heck are these?” he asked, excited by his gut reaction to their qualities. (“I love good figurative painting,” he says, citing his passion for Edward Burra). “They’re by John Bellany,” came the reply. At that time Hirst was turning his attention as a collector from his YBA (Young British Artist) contemporaries, to the older generation, the OBA’s (Old British Artists) if you like, of John Hoyland, Albert Irvin and Bellany — all now sadly departed.
Odyssey CREDIT: JOHN BELLANY
Cohen was so struck that, after Bellany died, he tracked down the artists’ widow, Helen, in Edinburgh and bought a dozen or more paintings. Helen had parted company with her husband’s long term gallery, Beaux Arts, so he also asked if she would lend some pictures to show with his new acquisitions at Fortnum & Mason, where he had been invited to stage an exhibition of his choice.
These were selected from thousands of works still in the estate, by former Tate curator, turned art dealer, Robert Upstone. The eminent art critic, Mary Rose Beaumont, who knew the artist well, pin points Upstone’s dilemma. “While he was alive, Bellany became respected for what he had done. The high point really came after his visit to Buchenwald in the 60s. From the 80s on he just produced too much, but every now and then he produced a corker.”
Eyemouth Roadstead CREDIT: JOHN BELLANY
As the early work rarely surfaces, the trick for the market and collectors is to identify the later corkers. Robert Upstone went through crate loads of pictures which are left with the estate to select works for this exhibition. He identifies characteristics of Bellany’s strongest works as “amazing draughtsmanship, tough Expressionist subject matter, and expressive gestural handling of paint.” Reg Singh of the Beaux Arts gallery, who dealt with Bellany during his lifetime, acknowledges the peaks and troughs, but reveals that he sold several paintings to Damien Hirst, and that privately he was selling early pictures for up to £80,000 – far above auction prices.
Elergy CREDIT: JOHN BELLANY
Bellany’s auction market has been fairly undistinguished. Examples are plentiful. Already this year 45 paintings, drawings and prints have been through auction, mostly in Scotland and for prices mainly in the lower thousands. They are popular however, and very few go unsold. The stand out price was last year when the 1965 corker, ‘Fishermen in Snow’ from the David Bowie collection, sold for a record £106,000. Singh thinks this is attributable to the Bowie factor, but Cohen, one senses, thinks otherwise. He has several early works which he believes are worth at least that much. And while Cohen is not selling his pictures, the forty or so belonging to Helen are for sale. Dating from the 1980s on, they are not from his prime period and they are priced from £2,000 to £55,000 each.
The trick for buyers will be to spot the corkers. And, now that figurative painting is no longer out of step with fashion, this move by Cohen could prove to be a well-timed ambush on the art world and its market.