After 85 years hidden in an attic, an important portrait by Scottish Colourist John Duncan Fergusson was auctioned at Christie's on 19 November 2014. Meredith Etherington-Smith reports
Poise is the title of a ‘lost’ early-20th-century portrait by the Scottish Colourist painter John Duncan Fergusson, which was recently rediscovered in a French attic, having vanished after it was first sold in 1918. The owners were a brother and sister who came across the painting while clearing out their family house in Giverny where Monet, whom their grandparents knew, once lived and painted.
History has acknowledged the Scottish Colourists as having been highly influential in the early 20th century development of British art. Of the four painters that made up the group — Cadell, Hunter, Peploe and Fergusson — the latter is now generally considered to have been the leading light, and was certainly the most experimental.
All four painters were born in Scotland in the last years of the 19th century and early in their careers became attracted to artistic developments in Paris. They were not a formal group as such, but friends who shared a love of resonant colour and the fluid handling of paint. This was largely due to their discovery of Post-Impressionism and subsequent early enthusiasm for the work of the Fauves — Derain, Vlaminck, and Matisse.
The calm yet complex portrait is strangely prescient of the way women would want to present themselves 10 years later
Poise was painted in 1916, two years after Fergusson had left Paris for England at the outbreak of World War I. The calm yet complex portrait is strangely prescient of the way women would want to present themselves 10 years later; the bobbed hair with a geometric fringe hiding the forehead and emphasising the eyes, the use of white, the simple almost Cubist dress and the almost minimal background all seem to be years ahead of their time.
There is good reason for the futurist feel of the portrait, as André Zlattinger, Head of the Modern British Picture Department, points out. ‘When he came back to London, Fergusson mixed with Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and their followers in the Vorticist Group, which combined elements of Cubism, Futurism and Modernism,’ Zlattinger says. ‘He also worked as a sculptor, which might explain the complexity, modernity and simplicity of this pivotal work.’
In 1918 Fergusson had an exhibition at the Connell Gallery and Poise was the most expensive work, considered by both artist and gallerist as the finest painting in the show. It was then sold and had not been seen since.
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