Inside Bonhams
Modern British master

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 48, Autumn 2016

Page 32

After a sensational sale in June, Matthew Bradbury explains the surge of interest in Modern British art to Matthew Wilcox

"This is, without doubt, the most exciting time," says Matthew Bradbury, Bonhams Director of Modern British and Irish Art. In May, Bradbury, who has been working at Bonhams for 19 years, presided over the department's most successful auction to date which achieved £8.3m.

Within the sale was the Reddihough Collection, the personal art collection of Cyril Reddihough, a Yorkshire solicitor, who was also a lifelong friend of the artist Ben Nicholson. Highlights included 26 paintings by Nicholson, one of which, 1928 (Pill Creek), doubled its estimate to achieve £722,500; while a Henry Moore plaster cast achieved a world record (£1.86m) and Barbara Hepworth's Seated Girl fetched £206,500, against an estimate of just £30,000 - 40,000.

For Bradbury, who has been director of the Modern British department since 2002, it was the latest indication of a transformation in his field. "There were more than 250 registrations from 15 countries," he says of his most recent sale, adding, "What I think we have witnessed over the past five years is the shift of Modern British art from a niche into a truly international field."

The success of the Hepworth lot, Bradbury argues, underlines why. Prices within the market are being driven by the recent attention paid to Modern British art by major institutions, with a string of critically acclaimed exhibitions for blue-chip names such as Frank Auerbach, L.S. Lowry, Barbara Hepworth and Eric Ravilious.

As Bradbury says, "The wealth of new literature on the whole spectrum of British art is astonishing. We are adding new books to our library every week. But major artists such as Lowry or Christopher Wood still don't have a catalog raisonné for their work, while Ben Nicholson's is only now being compiled, 120 years after his birth. And for a number of the other major names, there is still only one significant book each.

"Many of the Modern British artists are still underrated compared to the big Continental names, but it is shifting. If you consider what the auction record is for a work by Peter Lanyon or Terry Frost, or even Alfred Wallis, the prices don't reflect the importance of these artists to the national psyche."

Bradbury's love of art was inspired by his passion for bird-watching (he calls it 'birding'), which he began when living in Lincolnshire as a boy. "My parents weren't in the art world. Unlike many people in this industry, I come from a working-class background – my mother was in nursing, my dad was in brewing and I grew up in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire. When I was eight or nine, we moved for a year or two to the Lincolnshire wolds, where my parents bought a 16th-century inn. Tennyson wrote some of his poems there."

Bradbury attended the local comprehensive school. It was here that his interest in art was nurtured by an encouraging teaching staff: "I'm still a big advocate for that sort of education," he says, "and I feel strongly that I was given the same opportunities as anyone else." He read history of art at Nottingham University, where his tutor was Desmond Shawe-Taylor, now Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures.

As Bradbury says, "When I left Nottingham, I was quite unsure of what area and discipline to go into, so I wrote off to the London houses and eventually secured a job as a porter. I was a porter for the first 18 months of my career, hanging the paintings and getting to know what disciplines were involved in the auction business. A job opportunity as a cataloguer came up, and I suddenly found myself cataloging 400 pictures a month. There was a huge volume of work – we had print sales, Old Masters, Continental, 19th century, everything ... It was the steepest learning curve of my whole career."

Asked what he thinks the advantage is of working at Bonhams, he replies, "The best part of my job is my colleagues. There is a team spirit in a lot of the departments at Bonhams, certainly in mine, that is unique in the auction business. I think that is reflected in how we approach our clients, and how we deal with our buyers."

Although a spectacular sale result is obviously a thrill, Bradbury believes that it is the day-to-day excitement of the auction industry that really attracts specialists. "I didn't even contemplate museum work or academia. It would have been too slow-paced for me. And I can honestly say that, in 19 years at Bonhams, there has never been one day that I've been bored."

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

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