Update: Sarah Stone’s Four Parrots on a Branch sold for £14,000, or about $18,400.
What you see: Four Parrots on a Branch, a watercolor painted by Sarah Stone in 1789 or 1790. Dreweatt’s estimates it at £1,000 to £1,500 ($1,300 to $2,000).
Who was Sarah Stone? She was an English natural history painter and illustrator who was active in the 18th century. Taught by her father, who made his living painting fans, she came to the attention of Sir Ashton Lever, a wealthy Englishman who liked collecting natural history specimens and who displayed his collection to the public. Lever hired Stone before she was out of her teens. She ultimately created around 1,000 artworks based on his collection, and about 900 survive. Many of Stone’s illustrations represent the first depictions of various species, making them significant to science and history. The Royal Academy of Arts invited her to exhibit on three different occasions. After marrying John Langdale Smith in 1789, her output slowed, and she seems to have stopped after 1806, when Lever’s collection was sold. She died in 1844 at the age of 82.
How rare were female natural history artists in the 18th century? Was Sarah Stone pretty much it? “There were good, talented amateur artists, but it was very rare to be a professional artist,” says James Harvey, a salesperson at Mallett Antiques, which consigned the watercolor. “She was rare but not unique.”
What types of parrots are pictured in the Sarah Stone watercolor? At the top is an Australian King parrot; below it is a Black-headed Caique, an Indonesian red-cheeked parrot, and an African grey parrot. Lever’s collection of taxidermied specimens included all four birds. Presumably, Stone looked at them when she created this watercolor.
And this charming little gathering of these four parrots could never happen in the wild, yes? “It was a concept in the sense that the artist enjoyed painting subjects from nature, and she used artistic license to make the painting appealing,” he says. “It’s more about observation, about looking at the forms and the colors and making things look aesthetically pleasing.”
Just how talented did Sarah Stone have to be to look at a group of dead, stuffed birds and turn them into this watercolor? “The birds are very, very vivid, very lively. That’s the difference between a good animal painter and a poor one. These birds are very realistic, but they’ve got character,” he says, adding, “It’s a standout. It’s decorative, but has tremendous presence to it. That’s what makes it so appealing.”
Normally Sarah Stone limited her focus to one subject per artwork. Do we know why she bent her rules here? “Sadly not. It’d be interesting to know why,” he says. While we have no background on the work and why Stone might have made it, Harvey and his colleagues speculate that it might have been meant for presentation: “It has that feel. It’s very well-observed. It might have been an exhibition piece, a presentation piece, perhaps even a piece for teaching purposes.”
Sarah Stone’s works have sold for six-figure sums at auction. How did you arrive at the estimate for Four Parrots on a Branch? “It’s a difficult one in that the market for watercolors is not as strong as it used to be,” he says. “If we get one or two collectors in Australia interested, it could do more.”
What else makes this Sarah Stone watercolor special? “It has all the elements you want–good artist, good condition, nice picture,” he says. “The subject matter is very charming, and from an academic angle, she’s a lady artist who worked in relative obscurity. If there’s any justice in the world, it should do well and create a good price.”
How to bid: Four Parrots on a Branch is lot 167 in Mallett: Taking Stock, an auction scheduled for November 8 at Dreweatts in Berkshire, England.
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