Sale offers rare glimpse of art treasures

Ian Collins A fine fleet of historic East Anglian paintings formed over the last 50 years is expected to fetch £350,000 at auction in Norwich this week.Almost 130 works from the long-unseen Mowson Collection are highlights of the second sale in our region by veteran Scottish auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull.

Ian Collins

A fine fleet of historic East Anglian paintings formed over the last 50 years is expected to fetch £350,000 at auction in Norwich this week.

Almost 130 works from the long-unseen Mowson Collection are highlights of the second sale in our region by veteran Scottish auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull. The first, at Suffolk's Loudham Hall last year, netted £2m.

With roots in the Lowestoft and Yarmouth fishing industries, businessman John Mowson began buying coastal scenes in the 1950s and then moved on to specialise in works by favourite artists from the 19th century Norwich and Suffolk schools.

He and his wife, Sheila, came to fill their Broadland home with prized pictures as a hobby turned into a vocation.

Down the decades they bought and bought - and sometimes sold to secure better examples - before finally being forced to part with their billowing collection due to a major exercise in downsizing.

Most Read

He says: “I will be sad to see them go, but I have decided that it is time for others to enjoy them as much as I have.”

Auctioneer Mary Axon - formerly with Bonhams - says: “Mr Mowson's passion for collecting began when he purchased an East Anglian picture at a Suffolk auction for £30. After cleaning the painting looked a lot better, but it wasn't on reflection what he wanted to keep.

“So he sold it at a handsome £50 profit and was hooked!”

The twin stars in the collection are two marine oils by Norwich School pioneer Joseph Stannard, who would be far better known today but for his premature death, in 1830, at the age of 33.

Expected to fetch up to £150,000, the Off Corton and Off Yarmouth scenes are reckoned to be the best pair of works by this prized painter ever to be offered at auction.

They are almost on a par with Stannard's great Thorpe Water Frolic masterpiece of 1824-5, now one of the crowning glories of the Norwich Castle Museum.

The Mowson Collection is carefully crafted both in subject matter and in artists featured or omitted - the Suffolk tally being strong on works by the Victorian Smythe brothers Thomas and Edward Robert, and by the marine artist John Moore of Ipswich.

And, judging by the works on offer, East Anglia has a pretty formidable climate. Storms and blizzards seem to be always raging or brewing.

Besides the fabulous Stannards, the Norwich School is represented by some fine John Berney Ladbrookes and Samuel David Colketts. But there is not a single work by any member of the Cotman family - let alone by John Sell Cotman himself.

“The collection is united by a fondness for the landscape of Norfolk, views of the coast between Lowestoft and Yarmouth and a clear eye for quality,” says Mary Axon.

“In all it is a very personal selection which came to decorate every wall of the family home and with a reserve supply in the store!

“The works have not been seen in public since purchase. And many have not been exhibited since the 19th century.”

Neither were the Mowsons limited to purely antique views of East Anglia. Their taste for local 20th century masters has encompassed both Campbell Mellon and Edward Seago - each with Gorleston oils now expected to fetch up to £12,000 and £18,000 respectively.

Given the financial wobbles of recent months and all the signs of ongoing economic uncertainty, the art market has appeared a rare safe haven for investors - with huge sums piling into contemporary art in particular and records being regularly smashed.

But historic pictures can now look comparably cheap. We haven't quite got to the amazing imbalance of the antiques market - where a 17th century oak gate-leg table can be secured in salerooms for the price of a modern model from Ikea.

Still, besides the Stannards - and excepting the 20th century favourites of Seago and Mellon - likely bargains abound in the Mowson sale.

A lovely little Henry Ninham oil of early Victorian Norwich, showing Vessels on the Wensum, may be bought for barely £700.

And a larger John Berney Crome oil of the same river by moonlight could make just £1,200.

And a small but perfectly formed pair of Norwich oils by David Hodgson (1798-1864) might be secured for only £2,000. As records of the medieval city lost to bombers and bulldozers, they speak very poignant volumes.

t The Mowson Collection sale is at Norwich Assembly House this Wednesday, July 9. A Country House Sale at the same venue on Wednesday and Thursday includes more paintings, the Le Quesne Collection of Nelson glass pictures and selected contents of Twyford House, Norfolk. Catalogues £10. Viewing 10am-7pm today, Tuesday, and 9.30am-11am, Wednesday.