The 12.25 x 9.5in (31 x 24cm) oil painting had been in the same local family since at least the early 1950s, most likely longer, although its significance was seemingly unrealised.
It had some condition issues, including what appeared to be a tear caused prior to being relined and some scuffs, and was housed in an ornate parcel gilt and carved Florentine frame.
Catalogued as ‘18th century Italian School’ and estimated at £400-600, it drew a huge amount of attention with over 100 people watching the lot on the-saleroom.com. Sleeper spotters realised its similarity to a number of known portraits by Mary Beale (1633-99) of her son Bartholomew.
Two studies are on display at Tate Britain, while another sold for £75,000 at Sotheby's in July 2019, the auction record for the artist until the current sale. In appearance, age and costume, these sketches all depict Bartholomew similarly to how he is shown in Beale’s self-portrait with her family, a work painted in c.1659-60 which is now in London’s Museum of the Home (previously the Geffrye Museum).
Pre-sale bidding had already reached £20,000 before the lot was offered in Reeman Dansie's live webcast auction held behind-closed-doors on January 26-27.
After strenuous competition with the bidding lasting four minutes, it was eventually knocked down at £100,000 to a buyer on the-saleroom.com. The price represented a new high for the artist at auction.
It was underbid by dealer Philip Mould, who was bidding on his own behalf rather than for a client. "It is a high quality, appealing work by a leading 17th century female artist depicting her own son," he told ATG. "It is like other works by her on this scale and may be painted on paper, laid onto canvas, which will add to its intimate appeal for a museum or specialist collector."
Mary Beale was one of only a small number of female artists working professionally in London during her day. Born in Barrow, Suffolk, the daughter of a clergyman, she studied under the portraitist Sir Peter Lely and, as her reputation grew, by the 1670s her work was in considerable demand.
She and her husband Charles Beale (1632-1705), a cloth merchant who was also an amateur painter, had two sons, Charles and Bartholomew, both of whom worked in her studio early on.
Charles later became a specialist in portrait miniatures while Bartholomew went on to study medicine and later set up a practice in Coventry.
His mother was not the only artist to paint him. A portrait of Bartholomew by Lely from c.1670 was sold at Sotheby’s New York in January 2009 for $242,500 including premium and was subsequently sold by dealer Simon Dickinson to the Dulwich Picture Gallery the following year. It was the pendant to another portrait of the same sitter already in the gallery’s collection.
Director and auctioneer at Reeman Dansie Jonathan Benson, who was on the rostrum for the sale, said it was the highest price for a picture during his 15 years conducting auctions at the firm.
He added that vendors, who were long-standing clients, were “over the moon”.