Modern British & Irish Art

Two Important Paintings by Robert Polhill Bevan

By Lydia Wingfield-Digby
Two works by painter Robert Polhill Bevan are among the highlights of the upcoming Modern & Post-War British Art sale in London. Ahead of the sale, Lydia Wingfield Digby spoke with Bevan's great grandson Patrick Baty , who is currently working on the catalogue raisonné for the artist.

We are delighted to have these two important works by Robert Bevan in this sale both from the collection of Lt Col. J.K. McConnel. The McConnel’s were close family friends to the Bevans and early supporters of his art. Could you tell me a bit more about the family connection and the importance of early supporters to Bevan’s work?

Edith (Halszka) Bevan riding with Miss McConnel (Lt Col. McConnel’s daughter)

I believe that the two families would have met in Sussex, where Bevan’s family lived until 1918. I know that my grandmother was still in touch with them 50 years later as I remember meeting Colonel Jim’s daughter in the late 1960s.

My understanding is that Colonel and Mrs McConnel bought four or five works from exhibitions, at least one from his 1908 show at the Baillie Gallery and another at the 1913 Carfax show. Bevan sold few works at the Baillie show and it was always felt that the McConnels were showing their support for him.

The Hansom Cab is such a fantastic example of Bevan’s use of colour and the influence of the French avant-garde in his work. Would it be fair to say that Bevan was one of the Camden Town painters most aligned with the Post-Impressionists?

I certainly think that Bevan had probably most knowledge of the work that had been going on in France. He had been painting in Brittany in the 1890s, where he had made contact with Gauguin, and during that decade he made frequent trips to Paris to see exhibitions. It was this stimulus and this contact with Gauguin that inspired his later experiments with colour.

One can see touches of Van Gogh and Gauguin in the cabyard painting in the Tate Collection where vivid colour is used to suggest mood and atmosphere. Bevan certainly saw the Cezanne exhibition at Vollard’s Gallery in 1895, which was the first public showing of his work since the Third Impressionist exhibition in 1877. Bear in mind that it was not until Roger Fry’s show ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ in August 1910 that many in this country were introduced to Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

In about 1910 Bevan experimented with the Divisionist style of painting. Its logical, almost scientific, finish suited his personality rather better than the freer more colourful works of his that met with little favour in the Press. Later, his use of prominent outlines, simplification and flat patterns show the influence of French Post-Impressionism, although his colours are more subdued - more English.

Robert Polhill Bevan, The Hansom Cab. Estimate £200,000–300,000.

At Tattersalls is a fully finished watercolour, presumably completed from sketches by Bevan swiftly executed whist at the sales. Could you tell us some more about this process and the importance of the works on paper to his oeuvre?

Bevan was a very methodical artist, and for nearly every painting there are a series of sketches, drawings and sometimes watercolours. There are even lithographs too for a number of his works. Once this is realised it begins to get easier to identify the subject and location of his paintings.

Robert Polhill Bevan, At Tattersall's. Estimate £30,000–50,000.

Both these works depict as their subject matter, urban horse scenes. What drew Bevan above all to this subject?

Bevan had spent much of his first thirty years hunting, whether in Sussex, on Exmoor or in Tangiers, where he was Master of the local hunt. He stopped hunting after his marriage in 1897 but was still drawn to the horse as a subject.

This led him to paint horses in the cab yards of St John’s Wood and then from about 1912 he started painting the horse sales. His son, Bobby, thought that it was Sickert who had influenced Bevan to paint 'what really interested him in what he saw around in London'.

It is interesting that The Hansom Cab was painted in 1911-1912 and as I understand it, he was to stop painting this subject soon after. I wondered if you had any thoughts as to why he might have stopped painting this subject at this time?

It was clear to everyone that, since the introduction of the motorised taxi cab in 1907, the age of the horse was coming to an end. Bobby tells us that he gave up painting hansom cabs because he was anxious not to be accused of sentimentality about an almost vanished feature of London life.

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