THE market for early English portrait miniatures received a sizeable fillip in London last week. The auction record was broken twice within the space of 24 hours with the sale of two iconic images of major figures in British history and this was backed up by a crop of other strong prices for top flight examples from the 16th and 17th centuries.
First to make the record books was Nicholas Hilliard's newly discovered portrait of Elizabeth I offered at Christie's King Street on June 5. It was one of two Hilliards in the sale forming part of an impressive collection of early English portrait miniatures offered by a descendant of Sir Edward Lycett Green.
As the Queen's court painter Hilliard produced many variant portraits of Elizabeth. This late work on vellum from c.1595-1600 depicts her in her so called 'mask of youth' style - a tour de force of Elizabethan painted propaganda that shows the, by then, aged monarch dripping with jewels with a virginal white face framed by a gauzy ruff. There are similar examples in several UK museums, but Christie's version was unrecorded.
The £60,000-80,000 estimate was not over bullish given the Hilliard record stood at £200,000 for an unidentified young lady, so it was no surprise to see that outstripped. The hammer finally fell at £230,000 to an anonymous buyer, rumoured in the trade to be the specialist portrait dealer Philip Mould.
The Hilliard price established a new auction high for a British portrait miniature but the record stood for less than a day before it was resoundingly smashed in Sotheby's June 6 sale of drawings, watercolours and miniatures.
The auctioneers put up the definitive portrait miniature of Oliver Cromwell painted by Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist.
This 4 x 31/2in (10 x 8.5cm) oval portrait showing the Commonwealth statesman in full armour, signed and dated 1657, is one of just two known examples based directly on Cooper's "warts and all" preparatory life study. They are regarded as the examplar for all the many official presentation portraits that followed. The other is in the National Portrait Gallery while this version was on loan to the Museum of London until last year when its owners, the Harcourt family, decided to sell it.
Small in scale it may be but Cooper's portrait is a fully-fledged penetrating psychological study of the Protector that is as powerful as any Old Master portrait. In acknowledgment of its importance, the work was estimated by Sotheby's at £100,000-150,000, more than any other Cooper has made at auction before.
The auctioneers' belief in the exceptional nature of the work proved fully justified with enough competition on the day to send the price to £460,000. The piece will now be entering another museum having been bought by London dealers Browse and Darby on behalf of Compton Verney Museum.
These two images possess all the requisites to qualify as the best British portraiture of any size, transcending any considerations as straightforward miniatures. As such, both results rather eclipsed a number of other very strong prices for top quality early English portrait miniatures seen in these sales. The Lycett Green collection's other Hilliard, for example, a young woman thought originally to be Lady Arabella Stuart and a more overtly pretty but less important subject than Elizabeth, doubled its estimate to take £55,000. The collection also featured another characterful Samuel Cooper Commonwealth era portrait from 1663 of John Campbell, Earl of Loudon, again in full armour, that made the same sum.
And last month at Bonhams' May 23 miniatures sale a portrait of an unidentified Stuart period lady by Cooper's master John Hoskins (c.1590-1664) doubled its estimate to take £44,000.
By Anne Crane