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My Highlights from the Sotheby’s Old Master Sale in April 2021

By Dave Dallas, Old Master Specialist

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Sotheby’s Old Master Sale, which ended on April 28th, produced a total of just over £2m which is a fair reflection on the dullness of the things on offer. There were the usual unwanted portraits, swooning saints and boers carousing.

However, the picture that stood out for me, and to be fair, to Sotheby’s, as it was picked as one of their 5 highlights of the sale, was an atmospheric view of Santa Maria della Salute seen from the lagoon by David Roberts, R.A..

I have always loved oil sketches done on the spot and this one is painted in very thin oil paint, more like a watercolour technique on paper laid down on panel. When an artist is trying to catch the play of light across a landscape, or in this case, the sea, it necessitates working at speed and the beauty of this is that the artist does not have time to conform to the conventions of his day. Roberts was the son of a shoemaker from near Edinburgh and such was his facility for drawing architecture that he was known as the Scottish Canaletto.

You would never guess this David Roberts was painted in the 1850s. It is timeless, which is why, despite being only 12 ½ x 21 ins, it made over £32,000. Quite rightly!

David Roberts, R.A. (1796-1864)
Venice, a view of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute
Oil on paper21 x 121/2 ins

Below is a plein-air (outdoor) oil sketch by Jean Honoré Fragonard done in the 1760s, which looks like a 20th Century work of art.

Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Mountain Landscape at Sunset, c. 1765
Oil on paper
Approx. 8 ½ x 13 ins