Art Detective: A Sussex Farmhouse

Photo courtesy of Harry Moore-Gwynn.

At the 2023 edition of the British Art Fair, on the wall of London dealer Harry Moore-Gwynn’s first-floor stand, a vibrant little oil painting caught my eye. By the artist Robert Bevan, it was titled A Sussex Farmhouse, c1905. Where, I wondered, might this Sussex farmhouse be? And is it still standing?

A little research revealed Bevan to be an interesting character. He was born in Hove, the son of a well-to-do banker who was a senior partner in the group which eventually became Barclays (a blue plaque at no 17 Brunswick Square commemorates that building as Robert’s birthplace).

He studied art at the Academie Julien in Paris, alongside the likes of Edouard Vuillard, Paul Serusier and Pierre Bonnard, and befriended Paul Gauguin in Pont Aven in Brittany in 1891. He was the first Englishman to adopt a colourful, postimpressionist style.

If anything, he was too ahead of his time, for the English critics. In March 1905 he held an exhibition of his paintings, largely landscapes, at the Baillie Gallery in Bayswater, London. One critic dubbed his use of colour to be ‘garish’ and ‘violent’ stating it ‘had an evil habit of losing control of itself’. Another declared of his painting The Courtyard ‘it is difficult to be sure that the house-roof is not on fire, and whether trees are trees or leaping wisps of green flame’.

Undeterred, he spent the summer of that year in a cottage called St Ives in Kingston-near-Lewes, passing the days plein-air painting. As a resident of that village, I realised with some excitement that Kingston must be the setting for this painting.

I took a photo of the artwork, and posted it on the Kingston community WhatsApp group, wondering whether anyone recognised the farmhouse. The next day there was a response, from one Bruce Adams, who suggested that the building looked like the still-standing Carrs Cottage, near the village pub (‘The Juggs’). He produced as evidence a 1920 map which showed that the cottage was then adjoined at an angle by a barn, now long demolished. He surmised that Bevan must have positioned his easel in what is now the Juggs car park, which overlooks the cottage from the top of a bank (explaining the slightly elevated viewpoint). This used to be part of a paddock, hence the sheep in the foreground.

A few days later, back home from the fair, I took myself to the Juggs car park, and compared the Bevan painting to the view in front of me, of Carrs Cottage. And I realised that Bruce had nailed it! As my eyes flicked from the digital image of Bevan’s post-impressionist landscape to the cottage in front of me, I had a curious sensation of moving backward and forward in time: the chimneys, the gable, the hint of a road in front, they all matched up.

Bevan was a member of several prominent art groups in London, but never in his lifetime enjoyed the success he deserved. Happily, in recent years, he has been rediscovered as an important pioneer of British Modernism, and his stock is rising. I contacted Harry Moore-Gwynn, who revealed he had sold A Sussex Farmhouse to a private collector at the fair: the painting went for a five-figure sum.

Words by Alex Leith