This obscure portrait gave me goosebumps – but I never expected a bidding war

This obscure portrait gave me goosebumps – but I never expected a bidding war

My film about Audrey Amiss, whose career was overshadowed by illness, was done. Now I had a chance to own a piece of her work

  • Carol Morley is a film-maker, and the director of Typist Artist Pirate King
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Linda King, shipping manager at Ewbank's Auctions, Surrey, holding Portrait of a Girl, by Audrey Amiss
Linda King, shipping manager at Ewbank’s Auctions, Surrey, holding Portrait of a Girl, by Audrey Amiss. Photograph: Carol Morley

In late September, I received a direct message on Instagram: “Hi, I read a piece you did about the artist Audrey Amiss in the Guardian a few years ago. Wondering if she’s still of interest. Think I’ve found one of her works. Thanks.” Sent by Ant Cosgrove of thenorthernartpage, this message arrived just as a BFI-backed feature film I had written and directed, starring Monica Dolan as Amiss and Kelly Macdonald as her psychiatric nurse, was being completed. Conceived at the start of my Wellcome screenwriting fellowship, during which I researched Amiss’s vast archive, the title of the film was taken from the occupation she had put in her passport: Typist Artist Pirate King.

I told Cosgrove that I was “intrigued” by the possible Amiss work he had found – downplaying the fact that his message had given me goosebumps. He replied that he was a “proper art nerd”, and outlined how he had researched an unsigned painting coming up for auction. Armed with the title of the piece, Portrait of a Girl, together with the auction house’s online photograph of the rear of the frame, on which was written “exhibited at the Royal Academy 1957” and “Holland Park”, he looked into the original catalogue of the exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts from 1957. While it had no reproductions of the art exhibited, there were three paintings titled Portrait of a Girl – and one of them was by Amiss and gave her address.

Amiss lived in student digs in Holland Park while she studied painting at the Royal Academy. It was during this period that she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, which meant she never completed her studies – and, although she persisted with making art her entire life, also meant she never became a known artist.

During my research I saw all the Amiss work held by Wellcome, and the pieces she had given to her family and friends. I loved it all but, curious to know what people from the art world might think, I showed a selection to royal academicians including David Remfry, who said her early paintings were “by a very talented lovely painter”, and that her post-Royal Academy, avant garde work was “formally simple, witty and highly successful”. Humphrey Ocean, former professor of perspective at the Royal Academy, a position once held by JMW Turner, said Amiss’s later sketchbooks were, “Fantastic. And nicely weird.” Over the years I have never stopped wondering what could have been for Amiss’s art career if things in her life had unfolded differently.

When Cosgrove next sent me a screen grab of the painting of a young, seated woman knitting, with a particular atmosphere and fine use of colour, I wrote back: “Yes, wow! This is definitely by Audrey Amiss! I feel I should bid for it! Unless you are – I wouldn’t want to bid against you. But I long to have something of hers, which I currently don’t!” Cosgrove’s answer was a relief. “Yes, you should bid! The story of finding it is a kick … Glad I found it for you.” Cosgrove now revealed that the painting was included in the silver and fine art sale at Ewbank’s Auctions in Woking, Surrey. On the company’s website, I found: “Lot 1394: Twentieth Century British School. ‘Portrait of a girl’, oil on board, framed. Estimate £200 to £300.” Cosgrove told me to put my best bid forward: “I doubt you’ll see another so do your best pounds. To be honest, your movie will push up her price anyway. Ha!”

On the day of the auction, I watched the livestream from 9am. I had never bid in an auction before, and by midday I had grown increasingly nervous that my “place bid” button wouldn’t work, so I bid for one of the cheapest items in the auction, a Victorian Scottish silver caddy spoon from 1876 – and became its new owner. It wasn’t until the early afternoon that lot 1394 came up. The top of the estimate was reached, and I began to shake as the price climbed and I realised that I wasn’t going to stop bidding. I would give anything to own my very own Amiss. Finally, it ended at £1,000, plus auction costs. I wrote to Cosgrove to let him know that I had “won” the painting. I felt like a winner but I also started crying. The years of making the film had taken their toll, and to now have this beautiful painting, from the time just before Amiss’s breakdown when the course of her life radically shifted, was such a powerful marker in my own life.

On arriving at Ewbank’s to collect the painting, where I discovered it had been sold by the estate of a “discerning collector”, it seemed incredibly fitting that, as the film is called Typist Artist Pirate King, the painting was handed to me at the auction house by the shipping manager, Linda King.

  • Carol Morley is a film-maker, and the director of Typist Artist Pirate King

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