Robert Bevan, who came from a family of bankers, had a life-long love of horses and equestrian life. He spent a season as Master of Fox Hounds to the Tangier Hunt in 1892-3, and upon his eventual return to England in the late 1890s from France, he spent three years on Exmoor, devoting himself to hunting and painting in equal meaure. His two prime interests in life, horses and painting, combined in his horse sale pictures of 1911-4, of which the present work is a prime example. A reviewer of the 1926 Goupil gallery exhibition observed: 'Mr Bevan was keenly interested in horses, but he differed from most of our "sporting artists" by combining the interest with a remarkable sense of design' (Truth, 17 February 1926).
This sense of design came from the years Bevan spent in France, surrounded by the influence of French Expressionism. On his second visit to France in 1893-94 he met Gauguin and Renoir and saw the work of Cézanne. Gauguin and the Pont Aven circle were an important influence on Bevan's use of expressive form and colour, affecting the course of British painting when Bevan became a founder member of the Camden Town Group in 1911. This group of avant-guarde London-based Post-Impressionist painters, disappointed and disillusioned with the New England Art Club's lack of support, established their group to enable artists to show and sell their work. Bevan was within its inner circle, which met at 19 Fitzroy Street, along with Walter Sickert (1860-1942), Harold Gilman (1876-1919), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914) and Charles Ginner (1878-1952). In his memoirs Bobby Bevan, the artist's son, wrote that Sickert's influence on Bevan was to encourage him 'to paint what really interested him in what he saw around him in London' (see R.A. Bevan, Robert Bevan 1865-1925 A memoir by his son, London, 1965, p. 16). Horses and the equestrian life of the captial was precisely what interested Bevan, and at the time of the Camden Town Group this focused on the London horse sales.
Bevan executed around twelve horse sale pictures between 1912 and 1914, set at four different locations in the city: Rymills' at the Barbican, Alridges on Upper St Matin's Lane, Ward's Repository on Edgware Road and Tattersalls near Knightbridge Green (see F. Stenlake, 'Robert Bevan 1865-1925', The British Sporting Art Trust Essay No. 47, Spring 2006, p. 8). Tattersalls is the location for the present work, which is the first of two preparatory versions for the larger painting in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (fig. 1). Tattersalls sold thoroughbreds for carriage horses and hunters, and attracted a higher social attendance than that of the other three sales which sold horses to the trade. This was the London world that 'really interested' Bevan: 'He rather relished looking like a man who had more to do with horses and hounds than canvas and paint,' as his son described, always looking 'at home at Tattersalls and the other places where the horses took the centre of the stage' (see R.A. Bevan, op.cit, p. 20). In Under the Hammer the grey takes centre stage, the object of all attention within the composition, emphasised by the vivid contrast between the dark heads and hats of the onlookers set against the bright white flanks of the horse. Bevan was depicting a particular London social life in these pictures, one to which he was the most avid participant and observer.
The three versions of Under the Hammer present us with the only known figure study of Bevan himself. He appears in the brown coat, facing right. The little girl in pigtails is Bevan's daughter, Halszka, holding her father's arm. Bevan frequently took his children along with him when he attended and sketched the sales, preparatory drawings that he would work up into pictures, for example The Horse Mart, Barbican, sold for £122,850 in these rooms on 6 June 2003, lot 154 (fig. 2). The inclusion of a self-portrait into the composition shows Bevan at the centre of the world he inhabited in real life, and the life that he depicted on the canvas.
In the horse sale pictures, and the period of the Camden Town Group, Bevan was moving towards simpler, bolder areas of contrasting colour, angular shapes and sharper form: 'The development of Bevan's style and handling from about 1912 onwards, towards an ever more angular and schematically simplified treatment of the forms, the application of smoother and broader planes of colour, and the use of the more high-keyed, vividly contrasting colours, was ideally suited to the expression of the character of these subjects (see exhibition catalogue, The Camden Town Group, New Haven and London, Yale Center for British Art, 1980, pp. 3-4). Strong outlines and geometric shapes are apparent in the present work, very similar to the final Walker Art Gallery picture.
According to Bobby Bevan Under the Hammer marks 'the beginning of Bevan's final developement where the angularity of his construction became more pronounced' (see exhibition catalogue, The Painters of Camden Town 1905-1920, London, Christie's, 1988, p. 197). He brought to English painting the expressionism and colour he had learnt from being part of Gauguin's circle in Pont Aven. He was not simply a horse painter, nor are his horse sale pictures simply depicting an activity he himself enjoyed. The works display his broad experience and study of horses with a consistently developing technique of painting.
We are very grateful to Patrick Baty for his assistance in preparing the catalogue entry for this lot.