Ad man Peter Clemenger sets Whiteley’s Wren free - for $2m plus

The minute Joan and Peter Clemenger walked into Brett Whiteley’s exhibition at Australian Galleries in Melbourne in 1978, one painting in particular caught and held their eye.

The Wren, painted by Whiteley that year, featured an exquisite blue bird in an expanse of sun-bleached yellow grassland. Around and across the canvas swept a river with rocky outcrops within and beside it.

“It was one of Whiteley’s more sensible paintings,” Peter Clemenger told Saleroom this week. “It didn’t have bits of wood stuck on it or anything like that. It was a fairly straightforward painting.”

The Clemengers hung The Wren in their Melbourne home, and there it stayed for more than four decades.

The painting depicts farmland near Bathurst, NSW, where Whiteley had attended boarding school and where he would later take many productive painting trips.

The painting carries the highest estimate of any work in the auction, at $2 million to $3 million. While it’s a valuable painting by any Australian measure, it’s not the highest price ever paid for a Whiteley at auction. That distinction goes to Whiteley’s painting, Henri’s Armchair, 1974-75. Measuring 195 cm x 302 cm, the huge depiction of Lavender Bay as seen from across the artist’s living room sold for $6,136,364 through Menzies auctioneers in 2020.

Still, The Wren is one of a group of stunners in the D+H catalogue where the total estimates of all 55 lots range between $10.14 million and $14.87 million.

D+H rival Smith & Singer art dealers and auctioneers will hold their major sale in Sydney on April 17 with total estimates ranging between $9.058 million and $12.757 million. The 76 lots in the S&S sale were previewed in Saleroom last week.

As for Peter Clemenger, the successful ad man has replaced The Wren with an Indigenous artwork.

“It’s not quite as good, but it will suffice,” Clemenger said.

Joan Clemenger died in January 2022. She and Peter Clemenger married in 1956. Peter had begun working in advertising at the age of 16, and joined his father in establishing Clemenger Advertising two years later. 

Today, Clemenger BBDO is the largest agency group in Australia, according to the D+H catalogue.

Two other works from the Clemenger collection are in the auction. John Brack’s oil painting, No More, 1984, in which a phalanx of coloured pencils seems to symbolise some kind of office workers’ protest, is estimated at between $800,000 and $1 million.

And John Perceval’s The Splash, 1956, a breezy seascape showing Bayview Harbour in Williamstown, Melbourne, is estimated at $400,000 to $600,000.

Elsewhere in the auction, Margaret Preston’s oil on cardboard painting, Anemones, has been in the same family for 108 years – ever since it was painted in 1916.

A stunningly fresh-looking work, sporting a new sheet of non-reflective glass, Anemones features Preston’s love of painting the beauty of flowers and patterning. It was exhibited in the Royal Academy of Arts 148th Annual Exhibition in London in 1916 (as The Window). Anemones carries a pre-sale estimate of $220,000 to $280,000.

In London, where the work was painted, Preston shared a studio in Battersea with her Australian friend, the artist Gladys Reynell.

Preston gave Anemones to Reynell, who lived in Adelaide, and it subsequently passed to Gladys’ sister, Emily Lucy Walters.

The picture is now owned by Emily’s grandchildren, who are sadly parting with it.

One of them, retired Canberra lawyer David Walters, told Saleroom the picture had hung in Reynella, the family home in Adelaide, for 40 years.

It later moved with the family to Sydney, most recently to a home in Wahroonga where David Walters’ mother lived after his father had died in 1999. 

“It’s one of those lovely paintings that the family always thought well of and it was nice to have,” Walters said. “We would all like to keep it but there are too many owners.”

Another remarkable work in the D+H sale is Lot 11, a painting by the great Australian artist John Peter Russell who is always mentioned in the same breath as French Impressionist Claude Monet.

This is because Russell encountered Monet painting outdoors on the windswept, remote island of Bell-Île-en-Mer off the coast of Brittany. Monet liked the friendly young Australian, and taught him about colour. Russell later passed this knowledge on to Henri Matisse, whose name is a byword for gorgeous colouration.

The Russell painting being sold is from a private collection in London and is titled Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Île-en-Mer, c.1905.

It was exhibited in the Salon d’Automne, Troisième Exposition, in the Grand Palais in Paris, 1905. According to D+H, this shows how highly Russell valued this particular painting, as he was usually disinclined to exhibit his work.

Interestingly, it was at that very same exhibition that the term Fauve (meaning wild beast) was coined in response to the unrestrained colours used by Matisse and other painters he was working with at the time.

Fauvism became as readily identifiable an art movement as Impressionism.

Cruach en Mahr, Matin, Belle-Île-en-Mer has made only one other appearance at auction. That was at Christie’s in Melbourne in 1992 when it fetched $407,000 (including buyer’s premium).

Lot 22 is a sweet portrait by Jane Sutherland titled Portrait of the Artist’s Cousin, c.1895. A feminist, Sutherland was one of the leading women artists working in Melbourne in the latter part of the 19th century.

Portrait of the Artist’s Cousin carries a pre-sale estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.