The half-length study of a young 18th century gentleman was brought into the Gloucestershire saleroom by a local private vendor and, on first glance, appeared to be a small and fairly unremarkable painting of a soberly dressed figure holding a book.
An inscription on the reverse of the 11 x 9.75in (28 x 25cm) oil painting, however, stated that the subject was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the great Romantic poet who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, and attributed the portrait to the relatively obscure artist William Shuter (fl.1771-1798).
It added that it was painted at Nether Stowey in Somerset.
The young poet, his wife Sara and their baby son lived in a rented cottage at Nether Stowey between 1797-1800, a location where he wrote some of his most famous works. Interestingly, the sitter is shown holding a book inscribed Hartley, which may refer to Coleridge’s favourite philosopher, David Hartley, or perhaps may be reference to his son who was born in 1796 and named Hartley.
On researching the work, the auction house linked the image to an engraved portrait of the poet by William Holl (1771-1838) which was later used as the frontispiece for Edward Moxon’s 1852 edition of the works of Coleridge. Copies of this engraving are held in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Portrait Gallery but the whereabouts of the original picture on which the engraving was based was unknown.
Helping to build a case that this painting at Wotton was indeed that original was the fact that it appeared to be a companion piece to a portrait of William Wordsworth also by Shuter and now in the collection of the Cornell University Library in the US. While Wordsworth moved to Holford in 1797, just four miles away from Coleridge's cottage, both portraits are in a similar format and depict their respective subjects sitting on the same type of chair.
Furthermore, the inscriptions on the reverse of the portrait were written in 1873 by Richard Poole King, who had inherited the portrait from his uncle, Thomas Poole, in 1837. The latter was Coleridge's friend and benefactor and owned the cottage at Nether Stowey where he stayed.
Indeed, Coleridge's wife Sara and their baby son Hartley were left in the care of Thomas Poole when he and Wordsworth departed on their tour of Germany and it is possible that this portrait was presented to Thomas in gratitude for his support.
Before this sale at Wotton, Shuter had little track record at auction.
No work attributed to the artist had made more than £3500 (the sum fetched by a portrait of John and Mary Gallopp at Christie's South Kensington in 1999) and the fact that the most of the dozen or so attributed works that have emerged previously have sold in the low to mid hundreds no doubt led to the £500-1000 estimate here.
At the auction on July 23-24, the portrait drew interest online, on the phone and in the saleroom itself. After a tense and prolonged bidding battle, it was knocked down to a UK private buyer in the room at £51,000 (plus 18.6% buyer’s premium), generating a round of applause.
The auction house said it was “delighted that a missing piece of British literary history has passed through their hands”.