LONDON, ENGLAND.- This November, for the first time in five years, Sotheby's will hold a sale dedicated exclusively to Important British Paintings 1500-1850. In light of this, it is perhaps fitting that the quality of works to be offered on Thursday, 25 November, 2004 is exceptionally high. The vast majority of the paintings in the sale are fresh to the market, boast an illustrious provenance, and are of great art-historical significance. They include, for example, a rare, newly-discovered portrait of Edward VI; one of the few late Turners still in private hands; a fine Reynolds portrait of one of his close friends and intellectual sparring partners; and an important example of 18th-century artistic sisterhood - a portrait by Angelica Kaufmann of fellow female artist Anne Seymour Damer.
Perhaps the most remarkable painting in the sale is a contemporary portrait of King Edward VI (est:£400,000-£600,000). Historically important and visually striking, the work was commissioned by Sir Michael Stanhope, who was deputy governor to the young King. Although Stanhope was later beheaded, this poignant witness to his loyalty to the King has remained in the family ever since. (For most of its life, it hung at Elvaston Hall, the family seat in Derbyshire.)
Because his reign was so short (he died of consumption at 15), portraits of Edward VI are rare - and works of this quality are rarer still. The painting is close to the work of William Scrots (fl. 1537-1553), a Flemish painter who came to England in the early 1540s and soon after became the King's painter. Most of the best-known portraits of Edward VI have been attributed to Scrots. Given that Edward was a devout Protestant, it is interesting that the picture's iconography is largely pagan. The Latin inscription beneath the portrait speaks of Phoebus (the sun) and Clytia (the sunflower) - both of which figure in Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid relates that Apollo turned the princess Clytia into a sunflower as punishment for exposing his romance with her sister Leucothea. It is interesting that in this portrait the sunflower does not turn towards the sun but instead faces Edward. This could be interpreted as a representation of King Edward and his Protestant faith superseding Phoebus, and the pagan theology. Estimated at £400,000-£600,000, the painting ranks among the most important 16th-century British paintings ever to have come to the market.
Of similar significance, Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Sir Robert Chambers is an undoubted masterpiece. It forms part of the celebrated set of portraits of leading literary and academic characters, all close friends of the artist, which he painted for Henry Thrale. In 1772, Thrale commissioned Reynolds (1737-1803) to paint a series of 12 portraits to hang in his library at Streatham Park in Surrey. The portraits depict a group of Thrale's friends, which included some of the leading academic and literary figures of the day, such as Dr Johnson, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke, as well as Thrale's wife Hester and daughter. There are 12 portraits in the set, together with one showing Thrale's wife Hester and their daughter. Of the others in the group one is untraced and, of the remaining eleven, only three (excluding this) are still in private hands.
Robert Chambers (1737-1803) was born and educated in Newcastle. At the age of 17, he won a scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford, and in 1761 he joined the Middle Temple as a barrister. Five years later, he was appointed Vinerian Professor of Law and principal of New Hall Inn at Oxford. From 1774 to 1799 he was in India where, for most of the time, he acted as Chief Justice to the Supreme Court in Bengal. He returned to England in 1799, having lived in India for 25 years and having played a key role in the establishment of the British judiciary system there.
Reynolds completed work on the series of portraits in 1781, and Henry Thrale died that same year. Some 35 years later, in 1816, Thrale's wife Hester was forced to sell the portraits due to financial difficulties. The portrait of Chambers was bought at the sale by his widow, Fanny, and has remained in the family ever since.
Angelica Kauffman's Portrait of the Hon. Anne Seymour Damer as Ceres (est: £400,000-£600,000) springs from a similar friendship. Long considered one of Kauffman's most successful works, the portrait was painted in 1776, the year in which she made the decision to move from Italy to England. Within a month of arriving in London, Kauffman (1741-1807) was already hard at work on this portrait. The subject, the striking Anne Damer, was well-connected and Kauffman clearly wanted to make a good impression with her first work in England. More than that, though, there must surely have been a meeting of minds as the two young aspiring female artists sat opposite each other. When the portrait was painted, Anne Conway (as she then was - she subsequently married John Damer) was only 17 years old, but she had already shown an extraordinary artistic talent and was soon to establish herself as a leading sculptor. As two of only a handful of successful women artists working at the time, Kauffman and Damer will undoubtedly have recognised the importance of their common interests and skills, and this exquisite portrait therefore stands as testimony to the small but important female artistic fraternity that existed in 18th-century England. The painting was bequeathed by Anne to her friend Sir Alexander Johnston and has remained in the family ever since.
Recording not the personalities but the architecture of the time, Antonio Joli's View of Whitehall with the Banqueting Hall and the Holbein Gate, painted c.1744-48, provides a fascinating glimpse of some of London's most important edifices as they were in the 18th century. While the Palace of Whitehall and Inigo Jones' Banqueting House are still recognisable today, the Holbein Gate was demolished in 1759, not long after Joli completed the present work. It was one of two gates that straddled King St, the public highway that split Whitehall Palace. It was built in 1530 and was decorated with badges and roundels of Roman Emperors.