Italian painting owned by author auctioned for £59k in Suffolk
- Credit: Chris Biele
An Italian painting which belonged to renowned journalist, adventurer and travel writer Norman Lewis made £59,000 at auction in Suffolk, smashing pre-sale estimates.
The 18th-century artwork was sold at Rowley’s in Newmarket. Attributed to 18th-century Italian artist Pietro Fabris, it depicts the Tarantella Italian folk dance.
This was a subject close to Norman Lewis’s heart because of his strong attachment to Southern Italy and its people.
Lewis died in Saffron Walden, Essex, in 2003, aged 95. He worked as an intelligence officer in the Second World War and went on to become a renowned author, hailed by novelist Graham Greene as ‘one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century’.
Lewis’s experiences in war-torn Italy prompted his book Naples 44, which documented the state of the city as residents faced starvation and humiliation towards the end of the war.
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Although Lewis was part of the occupying force in Naples, he felt great empathy with ordinary Italians. He later wrote: “Were I given the chance to be born again,Italy would be the country of my choice.”
The writer married three times. According to his third wife, who lives on the Suffolk-Essex border, he acquired the painting in cloak-and-dagger circumstances while touring Russia in the 1960s.
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He could not earn any royalties during the tour, so instead of payment he was offered the choice of an item in a Russian gallery. He was drawn to this Italian folk scene, but then faced problems exporting the picture to England, so left empty-handed. His Russian contact came to the rescue and “fixed” the painting’s transition out of Russia, honouring their agreement a year later.
Will Axon, Rowley’s fine art specialist, said: “The connection with the writer Norman Lewis, who is well-known in Italy, added a predictably unpredictable dimension to the sale. Pietro Fabris is a desirable artist and this is a very commercially attractive grand tour painting.
“It is a classic souvenir picture that might have been acquired by a wealthy gentleman as a record of his European travels in the 18th century but its link with Norman Lewis has taken it into a different league. We are delighted it exceeded expectations and the picture will be returning to Italy, which we think would have met with Norman’s approval.”