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Somerset & Wood Fine Art Ltd. has over 2,500 pieces of artwork in stock, and the prices range from under £50 to over £1,000

Michael TaubeWhen I studied at the London School of Economics nearly three decades ago, I was also afforded the opportunity to travel to different parts of the United Kingdom.

One of those excursions was to Bath, England.

It’s a beautiful city located in the ceremonial county of Somerset – and, more specifically, the unitary authority of Bath and North East Somerset. Originally called Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) when it was part of Roman Britain, it’s a popular tourist destination due to the well-preserved Roman Baths constructed between 60 to 70 AD.

Bath contains many beautiful churches, parks, art galleries, museums, theatres and sporting clubs. Travellers enjoy seeing Bath Abbey, a parish church built in 1499, as much as Robert Adam’s glorious Pulteney Bridge. English novelist Jane Austen also lived in the city; it’s where she started writing her abandoned book, The Watsons.

Somerset-and-Wood
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Bath’s magnificent city streets and squares were mostly built by 18th-century English architect John Wood, the Elder. He also constructed some of its architectural marvels, including St. John’s Hospital, Prior Park, Queen Square and The Circus.

There are quite a few businesses that operate in and around the city. I happened to come across a rather unique one during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Somerset & Wood Fine Art Company, which takes its name from two components of Bath’s rich history, is located in the nearby market town of Bradford on Avon. It was founded in 2015 by Ayumi Ellingham and Olivia Nicholls. They both bring “combined professional arts backgrounds, in museums and galleries, art dealership and illustration,” according to their website. Nicholls, for instance, is listed as an editor and art historian who previously worked at the National Galleries of Scotland.

Here’s what makes Somerset & Wood truly stand out.

Ellingham and Nicholls focus on “affordable original British works on paper of the 19th and early 20th centuries – principally in watercolour, ink and graphite.” They have over 2,500 pieces of artwork in stock, and the prices range from “under £50 to over £1,000.” That’s roughly between $80 to $1,800 in Canadian currency, give or take. (For the sake of transparency, I’ve purchased a few items from them.)

Some notable artists they’ve handled include Louis-Philippe Boitard, Conrad H.R. Carelli, Henry Barlow Carter, Alice Des Clayes, Paul Sandby and William Turner. The two co-owners also recognize “value is as much about authentic personal connection as it is about the machinations of the art world. We have (an) equal interest in researching and bringing lesser-known artists into prominence, in serving collectors of items of local historical interest, and in reuniting family members with their ancestors’ lost work.”

Their most impressive find to date has been the French artist Nicolas-Martin Petit’s Toulgra, “an extremely rare, Aboriginal drawing.”

Petit learned graphic art in Jacques-Louis David’s studio and was a contemporary of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. The talented painter died tragically in a street accident in 1804 at the tender age of 28. Somerset & Wood’s unexpected discovery of his painting, nicknamed Bull Dog, was traced to Port Jackson, New South Wales around 1802. It received international coverage in publications like the Sydney Morning Herald.

Christie’s put an estimate of £70,000-100,000 for the previously unknown drawing. Toulgra sold for a stunning £162,500 on Dec. 14, 2017.

“For Somerset & Wood, this sale is fortune-changing,” their website noted. “It means we’ll be able to keep growing our exclusive online business, bringing you more original art that’s affordable for all. The Petit drawing might mark a new departure for the business in terms of value, but our ethos remains: to make original art accessible to all, particularly those who may be intimidated by more traditional galleries, while not compromising on quality and depth of research.”

In an email exchange last November, Nicholls told me, “the Petit success was pivotal for us, and super exciting. It makes you realize that these hidden gems really are out there – we try to convey that sense of intrigue and possibility to our customers. Often we don’t have the time or resources to exhaustively authenticate our stock, so we like to put things out there for customers to continue the journey of research and discovery.”

Moreover, Nicholls noted the nature of their business has its interesting moments and unique challenges. “It’s a funny old thing selling on the internet – we have this brilliant global reach, and yet sometimes it feels like we’re shouting into a vacuum,” she amusingly and correctly noted. “So, it is always so wonderful to make these more personal connections – which is, after all, what our business is all about.”

Somerset & Wood’s online strategy of selling original paintings and sketches of known and unknown artistic talent is rather clever. While they’re not the only fine art gallery doing this, they’ve identified a relative niche area that’s clearly paying off in dividends. They’re also providing people with an affordable alternative to collect pieces of art for their homes without breaking the bank and helping create a greater appreciation of 19th and 20th century British art in the process.

I wish Ellingham and Nicholls continued success. Their wonderful business near Bath proves that purchasing original art doesn’t mean you have to take a financial bath.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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