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  • 'One feels looking at an Avery landscape or seascape that the highest human experience is being alone and at peace with the land and the sea.' —Barbara Haskell

    Rooted in the artist’s committed observation of the natural world, White Gull Resting highlights the economy and compositional balance for which Milton Avery is most celebrated. Stripped down to the fundamental elements of line, shape and colour, and reduced to the three strikingly simplified compositional features, the work shows a closely cropped snapshot of a white gull perched against the wide expanse of inky blue sea surrounding it. Despite radically flattening the picture plane, Avery’s calligraphic mark-making playfully animates the surface of the water and the protruding groyne, the artist confidently explores the effects of depth, texture and pattern within this limited field. 

     

    Carving directly into the surface of the paint with a knife or the end of his paint brush, Avery developed a technique that allowed him to balance the opposing impulses of abstraction and representation in his work. By drawing attention to the surface of the picture plane through this playful all-over treatment, Avery was able to move towards abstraction while keeping his works firmly tethered to the representational.

     

    Avery’s Legacy and Peter O’Toole

     

    Well-respected amongst the younger generation of artists who would develop some of his experimental approaches to colour and composition in the development of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting, Avery’s works are now part of major collections in the United States and beyond, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art and Tate Galleries, amongst others. After more extensive critical recognition and a major retrospective at the Whitney in 1960 had raised Avery’s profile beyond the devoted circle of artists that surrounded him, Patrick Heron alerted his London gallerist Leslie Waddington to Avery’s work, and the first major international exhibition of Avery’s work opened in London in 1962, to great acclaim. As one critic extolled, ‘to walk into the Waddington Galleries, 2. Cork Street, this month is to feel an immediate lift of the heart, an easeful enjoyment of visual beauty’.ii

     

    Peter O’Toole with his family seated in front of Gulls in Fog, being offered concurrently in Philips 20th Century and Contemporary Day Sale. Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin.
    Peter O’Toole with his family seated in front of Gulls in Fog, being offered concurrently in Philips 20th Century and Contemporary Day Sale. Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin.

    After major exhibitions with Victoria Miro in recent years, the Royal Academy in London will also be hosting a timely retrospective of this modern american master in 2022. The present work arrives at auction from the collection of renowned actor Peter O’Toole, an avid and astute collector of antiquities and contemporary art. Most famous for his role as T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s 1962 cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole purchased the present works directly from Waddington Galleries shortly after the film’s release. 

     

    Peter O’Toole at home in London, Peter O’Toole Papers, Harry Ransom Centre, The University of Texas at Austin.

    Birds and Beaches  

     

    Milton Avery, Roosting Birds or Gulls on a Rock, unknown date, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Bridgeman Images © Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021
    Milton Avery, Roosting Birds or Gulls on a Rock, unknown date, Victoria and Albert Museum, London Bridgeman Images © Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2021

    Although Avery executed many beach scenes over the course of his career - owing much to the long summers spent on New England's east coast, his late work records an intensification of these motifs. With his health declining in the wake of a heart attack in the late 1950s, Avery and his wife Sally left the cold New York winter for a period of recovery and recuperation in Florida, where, as Marla Price has described: ‘Birds had appeared in many of Avery's earlier seascapes, but as minor elements. In the winters in Florida, they became subjects in and of themselves as if Avery, in his weakened condition, was drawn to their energy and soaring powers’.i 

     

    Georges Braque, Les oiseaux (The Birds), detail of central panel of a ceiling in three parts, 1953, Louvre, Paris © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021
    Georges Braque, Les oiseaux (The Birds), detail of central panel of a ceiling in three parts, 1953, Louvre, Paris © Peter Willi / Bridgeman Images © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021

    In its simplicity and playfulness, White Gull Resting visually recalls the sparse compositions of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, or Georges Braque’s bird prints from the 1950s, although its poetic serenity and compositional harmony, it also evokes the poetry of Avery’s contemporary, Elizabeth Bishop, whose precise descriptions of the physical world echo Avery’s tranquil landscapes.

     

    'The world is a mist. And then the world is
    minute and vast and clear.
    The tide is higher or lower.
    He couldn't tell you which.
    His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied, looking for

    something, something, something.

     

    Poor bird, he is obsessed!
    The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray,
    mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.'

     

    —Elizabeth Bishop, Extract from ‘The Sandpiper’ 
    first published in the New Yorker in 1962​​​​​

     

    Collector’s Digest

     

    •    Bridging European Impressionism and American post-war Colour Field painting, Milton Avery is widely considered as one of the foundational painters of American modernism, as his highly anticipated retrospective opening next month at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Florida, before travelling to the and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, London will draw on.

     

    •    Coming to auction from the personal collection of renowned British actor Peter O’Toole who purchased the works directly from Waddington Galleries in the 1960s, these Milton Avery works have an exceptional provenance, and represent an important moment in the establishment of Avery’s reputation in the United Kingdom.

     

    •    Avery’s works have been exhibited widely in recent years. As well as the upcoming touring retrospective opening at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Florida next month, Victoria Miro also held a significant exhibition of the American artist’s work in 2017, alongside regular, more focussed exhibitions with Waddington Custot.

     

    i Milton Avery: Works from the 1950s, exh. cat., 1990, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Florida, p. 3. 
    ii Quoted by Tate Online, ‘Timeline: American Art in Post-War Britain, 1960-69’.

    • Provenance

      The Waddington Galleries, London
      Peter O'Toole (acquired from the above in 1964)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

Works from the Collection of Peter O’Toole

Ο12

White Gull Resting

signed and dated 'Milton Avery 1963' lower left; signed, titled and dated '''White Gull Resting'' by Milton Avery 1963' on the reverse
oil on canvasboard
37.8 x 76 cm (14 7/8 x 29 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1963.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£70,000 - 100,000 

Sold for £189,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+44 7391 402741
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021