GRAHAM PATON and David Messum are art dealers at complementary ends of the gallery spectrum in London.
Paton has studio-style premises tucked into the pedestrian precinct of Langley Court, Covent Garden. His skill at spotting young talent has given many an artist the first step up the ladder.
Messum, in plush surroundings off Hanover Square with the air of a comfortable Mayfair house, is in the big league. Some of the paintings he sells run seriously into six figures.
In these testing times, however, both realise that a dealer has to try that much harder to keep the bank manager at bay. Gimmicks aside, an exhibition must have a theme that distinguishes it from competing shows and the works must be “affordable”.
Transatlantic interest is the strength of Messum’s current offering, now being aired at the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair (open until Saturday) before running at his gallery through July. The exhibition, New World Sympathies: The American Connection, offers some impressionistic outdoor scenes of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the American best known for his brilliant portraits.
With felicitous timing for Messum, a Sargent watercolour made headlines only five days before the fair opened. At Christie’s in London an anonymous American paid a world record price, Pounds 286,000, nearly twice the estimate, for The Green Parasol, showing two women relaxing on a grassy bank in the alps. In the 1920s it was bought from Sargent’s studio for Pounds 50 by Thomas Blackwell, art patron and chairman of the Crosse & Blackwell food company.
The art market is a peculiarly reactive one, where one swallow can be the making of a mini-summer. That record price made a director of Messum’s firm, Mike Roosen, say with some glee: “At Pounds 165,000 a Sargent watercolour of boats at Venice in our exhibition begins to look a very attractive proposition.” A Sargent oil painting of fishing boats at Whitby can cost Pounds 485,000.
The heart of the show, however, is a rare series of works by Wilfrid de Glehn, a Briton who died in 1951, formerly assistant to Sargent and later close friend, who shares the limelight with his American wife, Jane, also an accomplished painter. Wilfrid’s oils are Pounds 22,500-Pounds 165,000; his watercolours Pounds 2,500 (bargain-hunters start hereabouts) up to Pounds 10,000. Jane’s oils cost Pounds 18,500-Pounds 48,500.
The de Glehns, in whom Messum has developed a near-monopoly, were members of a band of ever-experimenting Anglo-American impressionists who flourished in Chelsea in the early part of the century.
It is also to Chelsea that the Paton Gallery looks for its summer show (until July 11): it launches four outstanding graduates of the Chelsea School of Art, all in their twenties. This is fertile territory for buyers on modest budgets. Paton, who has irrepressible faith in the new generation, says: “A quarter of the young people who have made the grade in this country in the past decade have passed through this gallery.”
Allowing for a dash of Patonic hyperbole in his claim, he does have a high success rate and he has struck a promising seam with his latest discoveries, Jason Brooks, Louise Birtles, Alyson Helyer and Robert Carswell.
Many artists faithfully reproduce oil paintings for sale online, such as famous artworks like Mona Lisa, The kiss, Girl with pearl earring, starry night, vase with fifteen sunflowers, and enigmatically bombards them with surreal painted shapes bright-blue lacunae, sponges and currant scones.
Life took a nasty surreal twist for him last week when, working late at a college extension to meet another exhibition deadline, he confronted intruders. In the fracas he received injuries to both feet that put him in hospital and forced him to miss the opening of his show.
Birtles builds up her canvases as boxes projecting from the wall, creating a theatrical effect for stylised figures, flowers and more abstract designs. Helyer and Carswell experiment in the abstract, but their works retain a human dimension and never cease to reflect a sense of humour.
Young Chelsea is having fun with art, as it always did. That, coupled with prices ranging from about Pounds 400, is good news for collectors.