Robert Polhill Bevan (British, 1865-1925) Under the Hammer 39.5 x 56 cm. (15 1/2 x 22 in.)

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Lot 13
Robert Polhill Bevan
(British, 1865-1925)
Under the Hammer 39.5 x 56 cm. (15 1/2 x 22 in.)

Sold for £ 180,000 (US$ 247,529) inc. premium
Robert Polhill Bevan (British, 1865-1925)
Under the Hammer
oil on canvas
39.5 x 56 cm. (15 1/2 x 22 in.)


  • Provenance:
    The artist's son, from whom acquired by
    Dudley Sommers
    Bequeathed by his wife, Ruth Sommers, to the present owners

    Robert Bevan, whose father ran Barclays Bank in Brighton, was brought up at Cuckfield, near Haywards Heath, where equestrian activity encouraged a lifelong love of horses. While his two elder brothers became bankers, he eventually joined Gauguin’s circle at Pont-Aven, in Brittany from 1891 until 1894, a period punctuated by a year as Master of Fox Hounds in Tangier. Three years spent on Exmoor, drawing hunting scenes, were followed by marriage to Polish art student Stanislawa de Karlowska. Bevan worked thereafter in England and in Poland, in isolation from the English avant-garde until introduced to Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group in 1908.

    In 1911 Bevan became a founder member of the short-lived Camden Town Group, exhibiting pictures of cab yards. At the third Camden Town Group exhibition in December 1912, his horse subjects had become horse sale scenes. He painted about twelve of these between 1911 and 1921, studying them at four locations: Rymill’s at the Barbican, Aldersgate in the City; Aldridge’s, Upper St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square; Ward’s Repository, Edgeware Road; and Tattersall’s, Knightsbridge Green. The Barbican, Aldridge’s and Ward’s dealt in hacks and draught horses for cabs and traders’ vans. Tattersall’s was more up-market, dealing exclusively in thoroughbreds, often former racehorses, to be sold as hunters and carriage horses.

    The use of intensified colour to articulate a composition of simplified, flattened, strongly outlined shapes came to characterise the horse sale scenes, as if Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries of French Post-Impressionist paintings, which had included nearly fifty works by Gauguin, had caused the Pont-Aven influence to reassert itself.

    The composition of Under the Hammer of 1913-14 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), for which Lot 13 is the second of two known preliminary versions, exemplifies this simplification and flattening of form. The horse up for auction being a light grey, the use of outline to define its form against the light background wall is particularly noticeable. The two smaller preparatory versions indicate that Bevan first drew the composition showing the horse from the offside, facing right, then reversed it, possibly to be able to make a stronger contour of the neck, clear of the mane, by convention brushed to the off side.

    The final picture is tightly drawn and painted: the use of outline is consistent and the colour scheme is determined by contrasting shades of mauve and green. The present lot is more painterly: the geometric severity of the background is mitigated by warm colour, and the paleness of the horse is conveyed by generously applied pale green and yellow, against which dark heads are silhouetted. The horse is being held without a halter, and preparatory drawings for other horse sale subjects show that such elimination of detail began at an early stage, each lad’s control of his horse conveyed essentially by the horse’s movement in relation to his own. This stylisation is combined with the accurate observation of stance, attitude and the exchanges between individuals.

    No notice is, apparently, being taken of the auctioneer and his assistant, in top hat and bowler hat respectively. A punter, one of only two to show enough serious interest in the proceedings to be studying the sale schedule, leans his shoulder against their rostrum, but no other contact is being made. Other figures, however, seemingly engaged in conversation, may be feigning indifference so as not to be identified as potential purchasers, the fact that any gesture could be construed as a bid accounting for the number of hands kept in pockets. The short man on the right may be a former jockey, talking to a retired yard ‘lad’.

    Those shown attending Bevan’s horse sales are, until the 1920s, almost exclusively male: sketchbook pages are filled with drawings of men’s heads in hats and caps, denoting the social types present on each occasion. Here, the presence of several men in top hats, and, in the final painting, of the smartly-dressed woman leaning against the auctioneer’s rostrum, suggests that the venue is likely to be Tattersall’s, where it might be appropriate for the artist to take his young daughter, and to show her, in all three pictures, in the centre foreground, seen from the back, her blue coat setting off the bows (red in the final picture) tying her long plaits, her hand tucked into the arm of her father in his brown coat. This is the only figure composition in which Bevan depicts himself, and, as Bobby Bevan, the artist’s son, recalled (Robert Bevan, 1865-1925 A memoir by his son, Studio Vista, London, 1965):

    ‘We were often allowed to go with him when he was making drawings for cab-yard and horse-sale pictures. In earlier years he took us, of course, by horse-bus, and we sat on the front seats on top so that he could talk horses to the driver. At Tattersall’s and Aldridge’s, the Barbican and Ward’s Repository there would always be a word or two with dealers and with handlers - and even with the bearded, top-hatted auctioneer - who all seemed rather surprised that anyone should even think they were worth drawing.’

    Bobby’s description of his father’s appearance places him easily in this group, one of the figures distinguished by more varied colour:

    ‘...he rather relished looking like a man who had more to do with horses and hounds than canvas and paint. The brim of his bowler hat was flattened, his overcoats had little buttons at the back of the waist; his suits were grey, and in town and country the ties around his invariably stiff white collars were thick blue bows with white dots. He always looked at home at Tattersall’s and other places where the horse took the centre of the stage.’

    In October 1933, an exhibition, which included the final version of Under the Hammer and four other paintings by Bevan, was held to mark the opening of the extension to the Walker Art Galley, Liverpool. This was the occasion of the purchase of the large Under the Hammer, only the second Bevan painting to be purchased by a British public gallery.

    We are grateful to Frances Stenlake for compiling this catalogue entry.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note that the provenance should read Dudley and Ruth Sommer not Sommers as stated in the catalogue
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