The Auction perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere and character of the busy saleroom, much of which is still recognizable today. The eye is immediately drawn to the raised figure of the auctioneer leaning over his rostrum, gavel in one hand and the other outstretched, as he takes a bid from one of the subtly raised hands below. Morgan’s model was his local auctioneer in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Robert Gibbs, who was also a printer and publisher. It has been suggested that it was Gibbs who commissioned the painting from the artist which may explain why this work, unlike other similar scale scenes from this period, was not exhibited shortly after it was painted.
Beside the presiding character of the auctioneer sits the clerk, diligently recording the bidders and results. The bustling room before them is packed with characters from every walk of life: farmers in their straw hats and smocks, gentlemen looking dapper in elegant buff waistcoats, matrons holding infants and even a glamorous red-coated soldier. The space is packed with objects for sale including rugs, clocks, mirrors, paintings, a rocking horse and even a child’s cradle. In the foreground Morgan places several distinct groups: the farmer reaching into his pocket to find the bills to pay for his purchase, the elegant family sitting to the right of the clerk with the rather bored daughter in her red cloak, the mechanics and restorers expertly taking apart a clock and to the far right the porter giving a mirror one final dusting.
In this ability to capture the whole of Victorian society and cast it in a humorous light, Morgan was clearly influenced by the famous scenes of modern life painted by William Powell Frith including Ramsgate Sands (1854, The Royal Collection) and Derby Day (1858, Tate, London). These ground-breaking works would have been seen by Morgan at the Royal Academy, where they caused such a stir that barriers had to be put up around the paintings to help control the crowds who flocked to view them.
The 1860s were a particularly fruitful period for John Morgan and saw him produce a series of paintings of modern life that were to earn him critical acclaim and enduring popularity. They included works such as The Income Tax – Day of Appeal (1861, Government Art Collection, UK), The Jury (1862, Buckinghamshire County Museum) and The Fight (c. 1869, sold as part of The Forbes Collection; Christie’s, London, 2003).