Two Exceptionally Important Robert Brough Oils

Two Exceptionally Important Robert Brough Oils

An International Aberdonian

Robert Brough’s artworks appear on the market infrequently, and Lyon & Turnbull are therefore particularly delighted to be offering two tour-de-force oils in our forthcoming June 2023 auction of Scottish Paintings & Sculpture.


In around 1900 a young Aberdonian artist named Robert Brough arrived in London. A rising star whose recent paintings had prompted a media frenzy, Brough felt compelled to relocate to the capital to further develop his artistic career. Chelsea was the beating heart of London’s art world; accordingly, Brough took a lease at Rossetti Studios in Flood Street.

Despite his youth, Brough already had the experience and credentials to mark him as an artist of consequence. He had trained in Paris at the Académie Julian, where in 1894 he shared lodgings with Scottish Colourist S. J. Peploe (1871-1935), and following this spent a period working in Brittany, inspired by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). He was charmed by the traditional way of life of the Breton people, and by the distinctive quality of light and vivid colouring of the landscape.


ROBERT BROUGH R.A., A.R.S.A. (SCOTTISH 1872-1905) | BRETON WOMEN SITTING ON A BEACH | £20,000 - £30,000 + fees
LOT 133 | ROBERT BROUGH R.A., A.R.S.A. (SCOTTISH 1872-1905)
BRETON WOMEN SITTING ON A BEACH | £20,000 - £30,000 + fees


View Lot 133 ⇒


Both Gauguin and Brough assimilated the tenets of the Synthesist movement, a painting style which prioritised the use of flat planes of harmonious colour and of rhythmic, pattern-inflected composition in favour of naturalistic representation. Brough’s Brittany work firmly acknowledges Syntheticism but is tempered by an observational grounding, owing to his fascination with the Breton peoples’ lives and customs. His paintings from this period constitute a sensitive record of a traditional people, rendered with an innovatively modern, almost post-Impressionist eye.


ROBERT BROUGH R.A., A.R.S.A. (SCOTTISH 1872-1905) | BRETON WOMEN SITTING ON A BEACH | £20,000 - £30,000 + fees


Jennifer Melville observed that ‘In Breton Women Sitting on a Beach Brough sets the silhouettes created by [the] local costumes against a glowing pink sand - coming as close to Gauguin’s flat patterns as in any work’. 1

Upon returning to his hometown of Aberdeen in 1894, Brough began to earn a living as a portrait artist. He soon attracted commissions from notable families in the area, particularly those involved with the arts. His style retained the compositional brilliance of his earlier work, but his technique became increasingly dynamic and ‘sweeping’ owing to his confident application of licks of oil pigment.



LOT 132 | ROBERT BROUGH R.A., A.R.S.A. (SCOTTISH 1872-1905)
SWEET VIOLETS  | £100,000 - £150,000 + fees


View Lot 132 ⇒


Sweet Violets dates to 1897, when Brough was establishing himself as an accomplished society portraitist. His characteristically flamboyant brushwork delineates the elegant profile and fashionable attire of his subject, Barbara Staples, whom Brough had secured permission to paint after a meeting in Aberdeen. Affixed under Staples’ spectacular hat is a delicate patterned veil, through which her pink lips and cheeks are visible. She holds aloft a jar of violets, with their purple hues reflected at her throat and cuffs, inviting comparison between the beauty of the sitter and the flowers she holds. ‘Sweet Violets’ and a companion painting titled ‘Fantaisie en Folie’ (now in the Tate collection) implement a similar palette and portray their sitter in profile against a plain background, which Thomas Cooper suggests may have been informed by John Singer Sargent’s Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1882-1883).2 Brough’s companion portraits were exhibited widely to exceptional acclaim, rendering the young artist something of a critical phenomenon.

Sweet Violets was acquired by Alexander Ogsten and hung in his home at Ardoe House, Aberdeen, for many years. So enamoured was Ogsten with the painting that he declined the many offers he received for it - including those made by Barbara Staples’ husband. Eventually the portrait was exhibited in a Munich Gallery in 1960, where Staples’ family were able to purchase the picture and return it to the family. They, in turn, refused to accept any offer that was made for the portrait, and for a long time it remained a family treasure. In the 1990s an article appeared in Country Life magazine searching for Brough’s lost masterpiece, and the Staples family responded explaining that the portrait was in their collection, and that the sitter was their grandmother. In 1995 Sweet Violets was exhibited at Aberdeen Art Gallery’s Brough exhibition, following which it was loaned to, and ultimately purchased by the present vendor.


ROBERT BROUGH R.A., A.R.S.A. (SCOTTISH 1872-1905) | SWEET VIOLETS | £100,000 - £150,000 + fees


The success of Sweet Violets and Fantaisie en Folie encouraged Robert Brough to move to London. He promptly joined the Chelsea Arts Club, where he met Sargent, one of his artistic heroes. The pair became close friends, developing a mentor-protégé relationship and taking nearby Chelsea studios. Sargent’s support, Brough’s painting career flourished year upon year.

A friend at the Chelsea Arts Club recalled: ‘I found myself sitting next to a somewhat uncouth, raw young Scotsman, speaking some curious and almost unintelligible form of Scots language, which I found afterwards to be “Aberdonian”. My neighbour was Robert Brough… his graceful and slim figure, with a well-shaped head and neck set well and high upon his shoulders, combined with a faun-like alertness and boyish enthusiasm, made him many friends of both sexes; and his paintings had a spontaneous quality of colour and handling, at times reminding one of Raeburn.’

Young, ambitious, and precociously talented, Brough was on an impressive trajectory, yet was unable to reach the soaring heights for which he appeared to be destined on account of a tragic accident. On 20th January 1905 Brough was travelling by train from Perth to London when a major crash occurred. He suffered serious burns and died the following day, with his mother and John Singer Sargent at his bedside. His life, and extraordinary potential, was thus curtailed.

Throughout his life Brough was successful and well-known; his obituary recorded that he combined ‘the dash of Sargent and the beautiful refinement of Velazquez.’3 Despite this, his early death appears initially to have prevented him from being fully admitted to the canon of great painters in the history of Scottish art. This is largely due to the brevity of his career: relatively few artworks survive Brough, and he had less time than most to crystallise his artistic legacy. Fortunately, recent reviews of Scottish painting have done much to reinstate Brough’s status as a painter of remarkable quality who worked at the forefront of innovative artistic movements, both in Britain and in France.

Robert Brough’s artworks appear on the market infrequently, and Lyon & Turnbull are therefore particularly delighted to be offering two tour-de-force oils, both of exceptional importance and each dating to key moments in his career.


1 J. Melville., Robert Brough, Aberdeen Art Gallery, 1995, p.21]
2 T. Cooper, ‘A Monstrous Imagining of Matter and Spirit: Robert Brough’s Fantaisie en Folie (1897)’, Immediations (2018), 4 (3), Courtauld Online:
3 W. G. Robb, a friend and artist, quoted in an obituary in a Scottish newspaper, 1905  


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