LONDON - As the National Portrait Gallery swells under the busy throng of summer tourists, no doubt drawn to the fascinating headline exhibition Virginia Woolf; Art, Life & Vision, a quick detour through the slightly less crowded halls of the upstairs gallery will bring you to a small but perfectly formed focus room which, until April 2015, plays host to Colour, Light, Texture: Portraits by Matthew Smith and Frank Dobson.


Cecil Beaton’s Matthew Smith, 1945. Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

Perhaps not an association that immediately springs to mind, both artists hold a pivotal position within the field of British art of the early 20th Century, and were seen as leaders of their day. Both were born and died within a decade of each other, and for both, portraiture became a key aspect of their output, challenging traditional techniques and ideas to create new approaches to a genre which had suffered heavily under the stuffiness of the 19th Century.


Cecil Beaton’s Frank Dobson in his studio, with his bust of Cecil Beaton (1930), Torso (1928) and Portrait Bust of Elsie Queen Myers (Child’s Head) (1921). Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's.

Seen as leading lights of the day, whilst the pair were never personally that close, they often depicted the same sitters and society figures, and indeed both had the camera turned on them in a series of brooding portraits by Cecil Beaton in the early 1930s. Beaton, who sat for Dobson in 1930, photographed the sculptor in his studio and with his young daughter Ann, recalling rather comically in his diary

“I had a pleasant afternoon at Frank Dobson’s studio sitting for my almost completed bust. It doesn’t look anything like me, but I didn’t say so. Afterwards I pottered about among the discarded plaster casts, unearthing heads of Tallulah [Bankshead, the actress] Osbert [Sitwell, whose beautiful polished bust is included in the display] and Lopokova [the ballerina Lydia Lopokova]”


Frank Dobson’s Rhoda, 1930. Offered in the Modern & Post-War British Art in London on 19 November. Estimate £30,000-50,000.

Produced in the same year as his bust of Cecil Beaton, Rhoda is an impressive unique bronze, appearing for the first time at auction as part of our forthcoming November sale of Modern & Post-War British Art. In November 2009 Sotheby’s sold the unique plaster for the work, which achieved £56,450 (including buyer’s premium). For those not familiar with Dobson’s work, I would suggest a brief wander along London’s South Bank – stopping in front of the National Theatre to see Dobson’s most important public sculpture London Pride, commissioned in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. The piece features along the route of the BBC’s Modern Masters Art Walk, which, if the weather behaves itself, is a real must for those visiting London during the summer months.