The largest collection of works ever to come onto the market by celebrated artist Herbert Olivier (1861-1952), uncle of the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) will be offered by London auction house Dreweatts in March.
While his works can be found in museums and major collections around the world, the sale’s 39 lots come straight from the artist’s home in Airlie Gardens, Holland Park, London, where his great grandson James Larsson said they have adorned the walls for over 100 years.
Royal Academy-trained Herbert Olivier was a portrait, allegorical and landscape painter, as well as being appointed an official war artist. He was well-known for his portraits of Royalty (George V) and aristocracy, as well as his grand-scale allegorical works.
He favoured painting en plein air and had a passion for capturing the natural landscape around him. Well-travelled, visiting far-flung destinations such as India with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught (and teaching art at the Bombay School of Art), he was able to capture the spirit of both the people he encountered and the environment around him with great flourish.
While some of the works coming to auction were loaned to important exhibitions over the years, the majority have never been seen outside of the Olivier family home, adding to the excitement of them being unveiled and available to the public for the first time. The paintings will be offered in an auction of Old Master Paintings, British and European Art on March 2.
Within the collection are portraits of family members and friends of the Olivier family, thereby offering a rare insight into the personal side of the artist’s life.
Other works depict his passion for the landscape and flora and fauna in the gardens of the family villa La Mortola on the Italian Riviera, next to the famous botanical gardens of the same name. Olivier was a great friend of the writer and traveller Freya Stark (1893-1993) and her parents, who lived in a nearby villa in Asolo, Italy. Their gardens featured in many of Olivier’s works over the years and his portrait of Freya, one of his most well-known, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Commenting on the collection, Brandon Lindberg, Head of Dreweatts Old Master, British & European Art department, said: “These light-filled works are truly captivating and it is rare to find a collection of works by an artist of this importance that has never been on the market before.”
Highlights include an oil work titled The Garlands of Love which hung in pride of place in the Olivier’s drawing room at Airlie Gardens for over a century. Brandon Lindberg said: “It is thought to have been painted in the very drawing room it hung in, or possibly in his studio at 23, Marlborough Road London, which was the address given when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1918. The painting was flanked by plein air oil sketches of the family’s beloved gardens at La Mortola, their villa on the Ligurian coast. The landscape of Liguria forms the backdrop of the picture and the artist’s family and friends were the models, including his daughter who is seated in the foreground with flowing brown hair, in a pink dress. The local postman modelled for the painting, along with his girlfriend, who he has his arm around in the picture, on the left of the work.”
He continued: “Its monumental scale echoes that of Olivier’s early war pictures, when he was an official war artist and produced many paintings of George V at The Frontier Post, Near Dunkirk and Merville in 1914 (now in the Government Art Collection). However, in conception, palette and sentiment it couldn’t be more different. The cold northern light gives way to the heat of the Mediterranean and the red, pink and white roses hang in swags across the composition. The matter-of-fact reportage of war is replaced by a joyous exuberance and celebration.
“It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1918 several months before Armistice, where it hung alongside portraits of fallen soldiers and depictions of heroism and military offensives. Olivier included a verse of his own creation as a subtitle for the picture, reassuring us that love will protect us from pain. It also bears a plaque that reads ‘Medaille Antérieurement,’ indicating that the artist had previously been awarded medals at the Salon des Artistes Français, Paris”. It carries an estimate of £70,000-£100,000.
An impressive work titled Venus and Adonis features Herbert Olivier’s brother, Gerard Olivier (1869-1939), father of award-winning actor, Sir Laurence Olivier. The oil work portrays the artist’s version of the last meeting of the goddess Venus and her mortal lover Adonis, from Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cupid unintentionally wounds his mother Venus with an arrow, resulting in her falling in love with Adonis. Venus implores Adonis not to join an impending hunt for fear he will meet his death, however he is determined and pulls away from her, while holding the leads of his hounds. In Ovid’s text, Venus takes off from this final meeting in her swan-driven chariot but turns back upon hearing Adonis’s dying moans, as her beloved is fatally wounded by a boar during the hunt.
The setting for this mythological scene is the garden of the Olivier’s Italian villa La Mortola which Olivier painted on many occasions and is depicted in several other works in this collection. Venus and Adonis has an estimate of £30,000-£50,000.
Death and a Maiden is a popular allegorical motif in art where death appears to a young woman in the form of a lover or fraudster. The subject dates back over six hundred years, with its origins in Greek mythology, with the abduction of Persephone by Hades, (God of the dead and King of the underworld). The majority of artworks depict death as a skeleton, however in this work, Olivier portrays death as a handsome cloaked youth in an autumnal wood, where a girl is seen gathering pomegranates, as a symbol of purity. He cleverly captures Hades’ fascination with Persephone and a sense of her impending return to the underworld. Death and a Maiden is in oil and canvas and is estimated to fetch £10,000-£15,000.
Among works featuring family and friends in the collection is A Portrait of Lady Nicholson, who was the first owner of Herbert Olivier’s Airlie Gardens house, estimated at £600-£800. Another titled The Artist’s Wife in a Rose Garden, estimated at £1,500-£2,000, and The Artist’s Daughter Picking Mimosa, estimate of £3,000-£5,000, show Olivier’s love of flowers and nature, as well as his astute depictions of family members and their unique characteristics.
Paintings produced during Olivier’s many visits to his great friend Freya Stark and her parents, while in the Italian Riviera, include Freya’s Stark’s Garden, Asolo, estimated at £1,500-£2,000 and In Freya Stark’s Garden, estimate of £1,500-£2,000. The works demonstrate not only his strong connection with nature, but also his architectural leaning, with the villa depicted amongst the foliage in the gardens. Olivier was an amateur architect and designed several villas on his family’s Italian estate.
An unusual addition to the sale is Herbert Olivier’s personal paint palette, as well as his easel, both in mahogany. The lot also comes with a sketchbook and three plaster artist’s models. It carries an estimate of £1,000-£1,500.