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Rare and Important Works by van Dyck and Rubens to Lead Sotheby's Sale
A self portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck is held by an employee during a photocall at Sotheby's in London. AP Photo/Akira Suemori.

LONDON.- Rare and important works by two Flemish old masters, Sir Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Paul Rubens, will form the cornerstone of this year’s December Evening Sale of Old Master & British Paintings at Sotheby’s in London. The sale, which is scheduled to take place on the evening of Wednesday, December 9, 2009, will also include prime examples by the prominent British masters, Sir Edwin Landseer and Samuel Scott.

As previously announced, an outstanding self portrait by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) - one of the most important Continental European artists to have worked in England - comes to auction with exemplary provenance and an estimate of £2-3 million. The masterpiece, which is the artist’s last portrait of himself, was painted in London in 1641 in the final months of his life. It is one of only three self portraits that he painted in England and this, his last, captures him grandly attired in a black and white slashed silk doublet. The painting epitomises the elegant poise and relaxed informality that van Dyck brought to the art of portraiture in Britain and it undoubtedly ranks among the most important works by the artist ever to come to the auction market.

The portrait has been in the same family collection since 1912, a period of almost 300 years, and it was one of the star exhibits of the recent Van Dyck & Britain show at Tate Britain. When it last appeared on the market in 1712, it left the collection of Richard Graham and entered that of the family of its current owners. Prior to that – towards the latter part of the 17th century – it is understood to have belonged to Sir Peter Lely. A favoured pupil of van Dyck, Lely subsequently established himself as the leading painter at the Court of Charles II. He succeeded van Dyck as the most fashionable portrait artist in England.

A beautifully preserved early work by the great master of the Baroque, Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), will also present collectors with a one-off acquisition opportunity. The portrait of a young woman, which was painted in the early years of the artist’s Italian period - either in Italy or during a short diplomatic mission he took to Spain - graces the cover of the sale catalogue and comes to the market with an estimate of £4-6 million. Hitherto unrecorded, the painting, represents an important addition to Rubens’ oeuvre.

The ruff worn by the young female sitter is Spanish in origin, alluding to a link with the artist’s time in Spain in 1603. While in the service of his patron - Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua - Rubens journeyed to Spain and correspondence suggests that he had been commissioned by the Duke to produce portraits of the ladies of the Spanish Court for his ‘Gallery of Beauties’ in Mantua. While it is not clear if Rubens fulfilled this commission or if this portrait was one of those commissioned paintings, it is certainly a possibility. What is evident is that this painting demonstrates the brilliant brushwork and physiological understanding of the artist, who was to become the most influential artist of the Baroque period.

The portrait is likely to have remained in Italy until the early 19th century, latterly in Venice. It then entered the collection of the Hanmer family in Britain during the mid-19th century, probably being acquired by Sir John Hanmer for his family seat at Bettisfield Park in Flintshire, North Wales.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873) is represented in the sale by an exceptional Highland scene that captures a peaceful moment at the end of a day of hunting adventure. The dramatic scenery of the Scottish Highlands had a profound influence on Landseer and his art and Scottish subjects came to dominate his oeuvre, with the most iconic of these being his hunting scenes. He first visited the Highlands in 1824 and he subsequently returned every autumn until his death in 1873.

Perhaps more than any other of his Scottish scenes, Return from the Staghunt, acutely and perfectly captures the innate romance of stalking and Highland life. The scene, estimated at £800,000-1,200,000, is a true encapsulation of the 19th-century public perception of the Highlands and it evokes harmony between man and the natural world. It shows the noble figure of the clan, wrapped in his tartan plaids and surrounded by his entourage of retainers, leading his people back down the glen in a soft evening light. Before him, his son proudly marches while a piper and a ghillie with his deerhounds ceremoniously escort the procession home.

Public interest in Highland scenery and stalking soared in the early decades of the 19th century and this was symptomatic of a wider cultural transformation. The industrial revolution and the development of the railways opened up what was previously an impenetrable upland wilderness, creating easier access to the southern and central Highlands.

As with many of Landseer’s hunting scenes, the clan chieftain depicted in Return from the Staghunt is almost certainly his close friend and patron, James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Abercorn, later 1st Duke of Abercorn. The setting is Loch Laggan, where Abercorn and his wife owned a lodge and where Landseer often stayed. Furthermore, the painting was commissioned by another of Landseer’s great hunting patrons, Henry, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne, for his country seat of Bowood House in Wiltshire. A highly influential member of the Whig Party in the Commons during his lifetime, Lansdowne was an astute collector and a beneficent patron. With his passion for art he showed an intuitive eye when acquiring works of the greatest quality. Having passed by descent through Lansdowne’s family since his death in 1863, the painting has never appeared at auction before. It was though exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837, to great acclaim and it now comes to auction in a superb, untouched condition.

The exquisitely detailed and superbly preserved Shipping at Anchor in the Thames Estuary, Near Wapping by Samuel Scott (circa 1702-1772) will be another notable highlight of the sale. Estimated at £400,000-600,000, the depiction of the great sailing vessels of the age, is characteristic of Scott’s most endearing work and it is painted on a grand scale; the painting measures 198cm by 211cm. It captures a British 6th rate naval vessel raising anchor in the Thames and as it does so, its sails are hoisted and men scramble about the upper rigging in a frantic effort to prepare the boat for catching the outgoing tide. The bustling waterborne activity suggests the close proximity of a dockyard and it is likely that the location is in fact the Royal Docks at Deptford. The painting captures all the bustle and commotion of river life and the scene would have been a familiar one in 18th century London. The ship at the centre of the composition appears in a number of Scott’s works.

Scott began his career primarily as a painter of offshore marine pieces and naval engagements but by the late 1730s and 40s – particularly through his work with the East India Company - he was gradually moving up the Thames Estuary towards London for his inspiration. His views of London often show a pearly, sometimes murky city, and rarely is this seen to such great effect as in Shipping at Anchor in the Thames Estuary, Near Wapping. The painting was once part of the celebrated Mansel Talbot collection at Margarn Castle in Wales, where it hung in the dining room for many years. Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot started collecting in the 1820s and he had a discerning eye for pictures. As a passionate sailor and member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, seascapes held a natural appeal. The painting was sold in the Margam Castle sale in 1941, where it was purchased by Lord Hesketh of Easton Neston. It has since passed by descent to its current owners.

Sotheby's | Sir Anthony van Dyck | Sir Peter Paul Rubens | Sir Edwin Landseer | Samuel Scott |

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