Collecting James Lawrence Isherwood Art
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Firstly, let me introduce myself. I am Martin Ayers, owner of Wessex Gallery, a boutique online art and antiques gallery based in Melbourne, Australia. I was born in Essex, England and have lived in Australia for 30 years and I have been collecting and selling art and antiques for over 20 years. In 2003 I set up my on-line gallery and have been trading on the Internet since then.
I first came across James Lawrence Isherwood works many years ago when I spotted one of his paintings on Ebay. It had been listed for sale by Richard Heath who manages Isherwood Art, which is, in my opinion, the premier site for information on and stock of quality Isherwood works for sale. Extensive research on the Internet introduced me to a huge body of diverse and colourful impressionist works and information about Isherwood and I was hooked. I set about rapidly building a collection of paintings securing several from Bill Clark at ClarkArt Ltd, with further purchases from Richard Heath and Martin Heaps at Collect Art, and the odd purchase from other sources including Ebay.
Over the years I have added to my collection buying mainly at auction. Bonhams at Chester used to regularly have sales with significant numbers of works, sadly no more since the venue closed down. However, works do periodically appear at other auction houses. Having said that, the number of what I consider to be good works appearing on the market has declined significantly over the last few years. My last purchase was about 12 months ago, an Isherwood version of Picasso's Trois Femmes. The original Picasso is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.
I have interspersed some images of works I hold in my private collection throughout the following text. Hopefully this will inspire you to bite the bullet and seek out and buy your first work or add to your existing collection.
That brings me to the question what to buy. I have listed below what I hope are some words of wisdom for the inexperienced buyer:
-Most importantly, don't be motivated to purchase by potential financial gain. Whilst it is always satisfying to buy something you love which then increases in value, there is absolutely no guarantee that any painting will make you a profit. Its a bit like the disclaimer you see when buying financial products - past performance does not guarantee future gain.
-Always try to buy the best possible work you can afford. It is always better to buy one quality work than half a dozen mediocre paintings. Isherwood Wigan and London scenes are always cited as being the most desirable. However, I have seen many high quality, desirable works which include other U.K.locations from Scotland through to Cornwall and overseas including Paris and Spain. There is also a large body of nude paintings, pardon the pun, portraits, horse racing scenes and the rare industrials. I have a cross section of works in my collection including some fabulous St Ives oils and a couple of rippers of Paris scenes - Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame.
- Buy what you like but look for works with bold brushstrokes. A good mix of colours is always attractive but don't overlook works from Isherwood's 'Blue Period' and his bold black and white works. The latter may be an acquired taste but there are some crackers out there. Isherwood also painted in the 'manner of' - presumably painting in the style of artists he personally admired. For example, I have an Isherwood Monet snow scene and an 'after De Stael' in the manner of Rupert De Stael, the Franco-Russian painter (image below). I have also seen works after L S Lowry, Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck. Don't be put off by works where the paint appears to have run - this is a technique frequently used by Isherwood. On the above St Ives painting the artist used the wooden tip of the paintbrush to define features in the work, including his signature on the hull of the black boat.
-Remember, Isherwood was a prolific artist and often painted the same scene several times with varying degrees of quality, from quite poor to outstanding. Obviously seeking out the best quality examples is the way to go. How do you recognise a top work? Well the best way to do this is to do your homework and research the market. See if you can locate a copy of the book Isherwood by Stephen Eckersley. The original hardback limited edition of 250 was published in 2009 and, if you can find a copy, it will cost you £350 plus. However, there is a later paperback limited edition of 250 and copies are still being advertised on the Internet at £35. There is also a book 'James Lawrence Isherwood 1917-1989: A Biography by Dr Brian Iddon'. This book is readily available and can be purchased for under £10 plus postage - check out the Internet for copies. There are also lots of images of Isherwood's work and articles on the Internet. Familiarise yourself with these works and information contained in the articles and hopefully you will soon decide which are the good, the bad (there are some) and the average works. Hold off buying until you are sure you can pick a good one.
Alternatively, seek out an expert (gallery) and ask their advice and guidance.
-Most works were signed and sometimes dated. Unless an unsigned work has irrefutable documented provenance, I personally would hesitate before buying.
-Always check the back of the work. Isherwood usually inscribed a title and the price in Gns. There is also often an X - reputedly for 'God Help Me' and works marked Molly (his Mother) which apparently were his favourite works which were again reputedly not for sale in his lifetime.
-The majority of works are oil on hardboard (masonite for my Aussie clients) but he did occasionally use canvas and also painted in watercolours. I am not a big fan of the watercolours but this is, of course, personal choice. Occasionally, you may be lucky to find a work in its original frame. I have a couple which are a plain off-white, one with a material slip - always a bonus.
- I was recently watching an old episode of the TV series Fake or Fortune hosted by Fiona Bruce and Philip Mold in which they were investigating three works by L S Lowry, who incidentally, purchased a work from Isherwood. During the program they mentioned that Lowry is one of the most faked artists of the 20thC. Unfortunately, as Isherwood's work has significantly increased in value over the years, and can now command serious money, there are an increasing number of Isherwood fakes appearing in the market both on Ebay and some through reputable auction houses. The latter, I hope, can be attributed to the auction houses not been familiar with the artists work. Unfortunately, as Isherwood's work is very diverse, some of these fakes leave even experts confused and undecided as to their authenticity. Therefore, the guiding rule has to be 'proceed with caution'.
-If you have any concerns as to the authenticity of the work, ask the seller for provenance but beware as some of the crafty fakers also build false provenance trails. Where does this leave us?
If you have any doubts, then my recommendation would be don't purchase. Bide your time and wait for the next opportunity.
Ok, hopefully not too confused. Now lets address where to buy.
Over the last few years, as I previously mentioned, it has become increasingly difficult to source good examples of Isherwood paintings. I believe that as his fame has spread, and prices increase, many collectors are now holding onto his works.
-Quality works do sometimes appear on Ebay - some of these are listed by reputable galleries. If buying from Ebay, make sure you are taking the guidelines above into consideration. Many private sellers sell in good faith (but not all). However, they may not offer any guarantees and, even if they do, they will be difficult to enforce. Galleries have a reputation to protect and can therefore largely be relied upon to play straight so to speak.
-Small numbers of works regularly appear at auction houses throughout the U.K. However, quality is not always great but persevere - good things come to those that are knowledgeable and ready to move when that special work surfaces.
-There are a number of excellent galleries which specialise in Isherwood works and have some fabulous paintings for sale. An Internet search should enable you to easily locate these galleries (some are listed earlier in this article) and any exhibitions of Isherwood works which are scheduled from time to time.
What to pay:
-In the current market, expect to pay anywhere from £1,000 up to £5,000 plus for the best works from galleries. Never be afraid to haggle over price. If you spot a good work which exceeds your budget, inquire if the gallery would accept a deposit with the balance owing being paid off over 3-6 months. Here in Australia this is called lay-by. If you are lucky, you may secure cheaper quality works at auction or on Ebay but make sure you are buying a genuine Isherwood with solid provenance.
I hope you find this article helpful. Have fun buying.
Finally, I have a number of Isherwood oils for sale in my on-line gallery www.wessexgallery.com Please check it out and if you see anything you like, follow the contact details on my website. You can also follow me on Facebook. Oh, and I do offer lay-by.
Bye for now.