Graham Smith photography to sell Derbyshire

Some 11 framed photographs by Middlesbrough photographer Graham Smith, whose work is in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, have been found hanging on the wall of a Bedfordshire house. 

Antiques expert Irita Marriott with two photographs by Graham Smith and Sirkka Liisa Konttinen

A further six framed and signed photographs by Finland’s Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen were also on display. Her work is held in the United States’ Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, as well as London’s Tate Gallery. 

The find was made by TV antiques expert Irita Marriott during a routine home visit in Leighton Buzzard – and there was another surprise for her. The owner didn’t know the photographers who’d gifted him the images decades ago had become famous. 

Graham Smith, Boy Holding a Mallard - Credit Irita Marriott Auctions
Graham Smith, Boy Holding a Mallard – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

Irita, owner of Irita Marriott Auctioneers and Valuers in Melbourne, Derbyshire, and a familiar face on Antiques Road Trip, said: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw them. The images are amazing – and valuable. Together they could achieve thousands of pounds under the hammer on May 16. 

“Photographs by Smith and Konttinen are coveted. They’re held in permanent collections in some of the most famous museums in the world. Both of them created photographic works of art documenting life in northern England. 

Attributed to Graham Smith, photograph entitled Seated Old Woman
Attributed to Graham Smith, Seated Old Woman – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

“I hope these photographs excel at auction because it will reward their owner, Alan Knowles. He helped Smith and Konttinen at the start of their careers. In the early 1970s Alan grantaided them through Northern Arts, an arts association set up to nurture talent in the region. He was film officer. At the time he lived in Darlington and his patch covered Newcastle to Cumbria. He was one of the first students to do film studies at Durham’s Bede College.  

Horse on wasteland photography attributed to Graham Smith
Horse on wasteland attributed to Graham Smith – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

“Smith and Konttinen gave him the photographs as a goodbye thankyou gift in 1975 when he joined the British Film Institute and moved to Leighton Buzzard. He never knew theyd become famous – until I discovered the photos on his wall! He was thrilled to find out they had done so well. His life’s work involved promoting the arts, film and regional theatres all over Britain.   

Graham Smith, Corner Clothes Shop with Mary Quant advert
Graham Smith, Corner Clothes Shop with Mary Quant advert, £300-£500 – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

“Now Alan, a great grandad, needs a little help. The works are being offered at auction by his wife, Helen, to help fund his care home costs. Alan is 82 now and he has been suffering with his health. I hope I can do him proud.” 

Smith and Konttinen used their talent to capture life in the north east. In the 1970s, Smith created a series of photographs that showed working-class people in a documentary-montage style. His atmospheric townscapes and people are dark and powerful. Smith’s works set for auction include Old Man and Tyne Bridge; Corner Clothes Shop with Mary Quant advert; Boy holding a Mallard, and Seated Old Woman. Smith curtailed his photography career in 1990 and became a professional woodworker. 

Old Men, photography attributed to Graham Smith
Old Men, attributed to Graham Smith – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

Konttinen has worked in Britain since the 1960s. Born in Finland in 1948, she became interested in photography at 12. She was apprenticed to a fashion photographer in Helsinki, studied photography in London in the 1960s, and cofounded the Amber Collective, a film and photography organisation documenting life in the north east. 

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen - Mouse Circus, Hoppings
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen – Mouse Circus, Hoppings – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

From 1969 Konttinen lived in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne, for about a decade. She photographed and interviewed residents of the area’s terraced houses. In 1980 she became the first photographer since the Cultural Revolution to have work exhibited by the British Council in China. Her photography has also covered girls attending dance schools in North Shields and the beach between Seaham and Hartlepool in County Durham. 

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Striptease Knife Throwing
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Striptease Knife Throwing – Credit Irita Marriott Auctions

Konttinen’s photos set for auction include Striptease Knife Throwing, Hoppings; Girl on a Spacehopper, Byker, and Bird Watching. 

Irita said: “It’s nice to think that kindness and support given to two young photographers nearly 50 years ago could help Alan now.” 

The photographs will be offered on May 16 in the May 15-16 auction at Irita Marriott Auctioneers and Valuers, Melbourne, Derbyshire.