A RARE early oil painting by late county artist John Bellany has sold for more than £100,000 at The Scottish Contemporary Art Auction at McTear’s – five times higher than its original estimate.

Mr Bellany, from Port Seton, who was 71 at the time of his death in 2013, painted the artwork – The Finnon Smoker – in 1965 when he was just 23 and exhibited it on the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, alongside works by Alexander Moffat, in protest at the paltry recognition given to Scottish art by the organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival.

The painting sold for £103,000 at auction at the end of last month.

A total of 21 works, nine by Bellany and 12 by Moffat, featured in the collection known as the “railings paintings”, with very few ever coming to auction and most featuring in public collections, including at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Brian Clements, managing director of auction house McTear’s, said: “This is an incredibly important painting and there was huge interest when it was announced the work would be coming to auction.

“It was a very lively sale and we are delighted with the price achieved, which is one of the highest for the artist.

“Although we see many Bellany paintings in The Scottish Contemporary Art Auction, this piece stands alone due in no small part to the key role it played in changing the course of Scottish painting.

“This and the other railings paintings brought the new wave of Scottish realists to the attention of the wider arts establishment through their powerful and emotive images of the lives of working people, in Bellany’s case the fishermen and women of Port Seton.

“The railings paintings are considered to be amongst the finest works produced by Bellany, with respected London art critic Brian Sewell summing up the importance of the pieces when he compared the artist’s early work to Rembrandt.”

Alexander Moffat, in summing up the impact of Bellany’s early works, had been quoted saying: “People had painted fishing boats, but nobody had ever painted about the life of people who did the fishing.

“That was John’s fantastic contribution.

“His place in Scottish art is defined by the Port Seton thing.

“That’s really his life’s work, the way he has mythologised the life of the fisherman.

“The fears, the spirit, the whole thing, the way he found the special imagery, that had never been done before, to say all those things – that puts him into the history books forever.”

The Finnon Smoker was presented at auction in its original frame, complete with nail holes and splashes of paint.

Mr Clements added: “The frame and the nail holes are part of the DNA of the painting and, fundamentally, it’s exactly how John Bellany painted it, exactly as he framed it and exactly how he exhibited it against the railings outside the Royal Scottish Academy in 1965.”

In addition to The Finnon Smoker and other Bellany paintings, The Scottish Contemporary Art Auction featured works by a selection of leading artists, including L.S. Lowry, Peter Howson, Graham McKean, Jolomo, Ryan Mutter, Georgina McMaster and David Hockney.