Two Rare And Important Oils By Pioneer Painter Thomas Bowler Enter The Market

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Thomas Bowler.  Arrival of the East Indiaman St. Lawrence in Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope Estimate R 100 000 – 150 000.  Provenance: Metropolitan Life

Strauss & Co is proud to announce the sale of two extremely rare oil paintings by the celebrated nineteenth-century landscape painter Thomas Bowler (1812–69). Bowler is best known for his many watercolours and prints, less so his exceptional – and also extraordinarily rare – oil paintings. This sale of two Bowler oils from the early 1860s represents an uncommon opportunity to bid on apex works by this important artist from a formative period in South African art history.

“Oil paintings by Thomas Bowler are exceedingly rare with only 12 examples recorded by his biographer Frank Bradlow,” says Matthew Partridge, a senior art specialist at Strauss & Co who consigned the Bowler oils from financial services group Momentum Metropolitan Life. “Working primarily in watercolour, as was the favoured style of English landscape painters of the time, the two lots on offer show a seldom seen part of what constitutes the height of Bowler’s painterly oeuvre.”

Thomas Bowler Port Elizabeth, circa 1861 Estimate R 150 000 – 200 000 Provenance: Metropolitan Life

Arrival of the East Indiaman St. Lawrence in Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope (estimate R100 000 – 150 000) is a maritime scene depicting the arrival of a three-masted frigate at Table Bay in 1861. In his authoritative 1975 account of the artist, Frank Bradlow writes that Bowler’s understanding of light and water allowed him to express “the drama of the sea in all its varieties of action”. The work on offer bears out these characteristics.

“This work also offers a wonderful slice of maritime history,” adds Partridge, “signalling the end of an era in maritime history with the advent of steamships. At the time of its arrival, the St. Lawrence was the finest wind-powered vessel of its type. We were able to identify the ship in Bowler’s accomplished oil from an earlier watercolour sketch.”

Measuring 28 by 44cm, Bowler’s oil depicts the arrival of the St. Lawrence in Table Bay from a vantage on Robben Island. The artist was intimately familiar with this view from his time as a storekeeper and tutor on the island from 1835 until 1838. The roiling sea and hint of a wreck in the foreground of his painting portend the unlucky fate of the St Lawrence, which later sank off the coast of Australia.

Produced a year after his Cape scene, Bowler’s view of the early settlement, Port Elizabeth, recently renamed Gqeberha (estimate R150 000 – 200 000) reveals the artist’s great imaginative abilities. That Bowler did not always depict his scenes faithfully is well known. Bowler’s elevated view of the fledgling seaport at Algoa Bay encompasses its new Town Hall. This structure was in fact only completed in the early 1880s. Frank Bradlow speculates that Bowler must have had a preview of the architectural drafts in order to realise his panorama.

Both the Bowler works offered by Strauss & Co have an impeccable provenance and distinguished exhibition histories. Arrival of the East Indiaman St. Lawrence was exhibited at the Cape Town Festival in 1975, and again in 1986-87 at the King George VI Art Gallery (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum), where Bowler’s then little-known oil Port Elizabeth first came to light.

Along with Thomas Baines and Frederick l’Ons, English-born Bowler forms part of a triumvirate of canonical nineteenth-century painters central to the formation of modern painting in South Africa. His reputation as an artist is longstanding. At his untimely death in 1869, Bowler’s obituary in The Art Journal, the leading English art magazine of the nineteenth century, recorded that he had acquired a “considerable reputation” in the Cape, but that he was “not unknown in England, his works having been favourably mentioned in The Art Journal and other metropolitan periodicals”.

Prominent early collectors of Bowler’s work included the mining magnate Sir Abe Bailey. In 1981 a Bowler watercolour depicting Table Bay from the breakwater achieved a record price for a South African painting when it sold at auction for R27 000 in Cape Town. The present sale will doubtlessly mark another milestone in Bowler’s storied afterlife at auction.

The sale of Thomas Bowler’s Arrival of the East Indiaman St. Lawrence in Table Bay, Cape of Good Hope and Port Elizabeth, both from the collection of Momentum Metropolitan Life, will take place on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 at 7pm. The lots form part of Strauss & Co’s exceptional catalogue of modern, post-war and contemporary art, decorative arts, jewellery and fine wine due to be auctioned live over three days from 11 to 13 April.

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