What Bonhams are billing as “one of the world’s greatest portrait miniature collections” will go on sale in their Bond Street rooms on April 22. The 175 English and Continental miniatures, which have been on loan to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for the past three years, date from the 16th to the 19th century and are estimated to fetch in excess of £1m.
Dubbed the Albion Collection, it has been assembled over 40 years by an anonymous British vendor who started collecting portrait miniatures at the age of 16. He bought at auction and from dealers, notably the well-known miniature specialist D.S. Lavender, increasing his scope as his buying power grew. The result is a very wide-ranging collection.
There are obviously artists with whom the vendor has a particular affiliation. Top British painters from the golden age of miniature painting are especially well represented, with no fewer than 19 Englehearts, 12 Cosways and eight Smarts.
Nonetheless, the vendor didn’t particularly opt for one period or country, nor was he concerned with filling gaps: what particularly interested him was the subject. “He bought on sitter attraction,” said Bonhams’ specialist Emma Rutherford; “every single one has a story. There are very few unknown subjects and although all are beautiful in their way, some are more interesting than beautiful. The collection provides a fascinating insight into the social history of the time and allows us almost voyeuristic access to the aristocracy of the day.”
This interest and attraction is very well illustrated by one of the stars of the collection, Isaac Oliver’s portrait of Dorothy, Countess of Leicester, which is estimated to fetch around £50,000-70,000. Painted around 1615, it shows Lady Dorothy on the eve of her clandestine marriage to Lord Robert Sidney, later the 2nd Earl of Leicester, and depicts her with long flowing hair, a motif indicating her virginal purity.
Another is a miniature of Charles II painted during his exile by the artist David de Granges (c.1611-c.1655).
Anyone found carrying a picture of the king at the time could have been imprisoned for showing allegiance to the crown, so the artist encased the miniature in a hinged sharkskin case for secrecy.
From the later period comes the striking portrait of William Holman Hunt shown here, painted by fellow pre-Raphaelite Edward Robert Hughes. The watercolour on ivory captures his blue eyes, red hair and pale face. This piece, set in a jewelled silver filigree frame, is estimated at £15,000-20,000.
The collection’s costliest image will almost certainly be Hilliard’s portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, the patron of William Shakespeare, which is estimated to fetch £70,000-90,000. But although there are many pieces in the sale carrying five-figure estimates that would make stellar additions to anyone’s collection, not everything requires such deep pockets. With guidelines starting at around the £500 mark, there are also pieces for those with less to spend; those who are beginning to collect or for those who would simply like to buy an attractive and interesting small-scale painting.
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