Oswald Birley portrait

Sir Oswald Birley's portrait of HMS Hood commander Ralph Kerr, 1943, sold for £36,000 at Dawsons.

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Among the dead was Hood’s commander, Captain Ralph Kerr CBE. In a striking portrait by Oswald Birley (1880-1952), he is shown in full uniform, wearing a duffle coat and holding binoculars.

That oil on canvas was one lot in a group of five related to the admired Royal Navy veteran that were consigned to Berkshire saleroom Dawsons through family descent and offered on May 30.

The portrait, signed by the artist in 1943, was accompanied by handwritten correspondence from the artist to the sitter's widow, dating from March 1943 to July 1944, discussing the photographs used, the composition and the clothes in the painting. The lot also featured A History of the Family Kerr by Russell J Kerr, November, 1923, published for private circulation by John Bellows, Gloucester in 1923.

Estimated at £2000-3000, it hammered at £36,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).

It is a the second-highest price for a Birley at auction but still has some way to go to match the Churchill portrait bought by Lord Lloyd Webber for a hammer price of £1.2m at Sotheby’s in 2014.

Reflecting on his grandfather’s legacy, a family member said: “I never knew my grandfather, but the details of his face are etched on my mind... My mother always said it was a very good likeness, apart from the hands which just didn’t do them justice.”

Birley was one of Britain’s most successful portrait painters of the inter-war era. Leading figures of the day – royalty, politicians, scientists and high society – went to him for the sort of formal and traditional well-painted likeness he specialised in.

Long career

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Captain Ralph Kerr of HMS Hood medal collection, with other family honours, £14,000 at Dawsons.

Kerr’s long career was reflected in another of the lots offered in Maidenhead: a large collection of medals including First and Second World War honours guided at £3000-500 that hammered at £14,000.

Born in 1891, Kerr joined the RN at 13 and after serving at the Battle of Jutland, in 1918 he assumed command of the destroyer HMS Cossack. His leadership aboard destroyers, including several flotillas stationed in the Mediterranean, earned him widespread admiration. In one incident he was mistakenly reported drowned, only to prove otherwise.

Despite his obvious ability, Kerr’s appointment as commander of Hood in early 1941 was a surprise given his background in destroyer operations. The battlecruiser was scheduled to undergo a major rebuild that year to keep up with advances in naval gunnery, but this was not possible due to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

The Hood met its end in the Straits of Denmark at the hands of the Bismarck, itself sunk three days later by a large British force. Hood’s fate caused shock waves throughout the world, given that the battlecruiser was regarded as one of the most technically advanced warships then afloat.

The medal group also included honours to Ralph’s father Sir Russell Kerr and his son, Russell, who died in 1945 serving in the army in Burma. Ralph’s Kerr’s older brother had been killed in the First World War.

Personal items

Another impressive result came for Captain Kerr’s original military metal trunk, containing a large collection of ephemera related to him and his family. It was knocked down at £7000 – 14 times the top estimate.

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Captain Ralph Kerr of HMS Hood's personally presented naval dirk and scabbard, £2500 at Dawsons.

A ceremonial sword personally presented to him was estimated at £300-500. The 1856 pattern Midshipman's Dirk and scabbard made by Wilkinson Sword for Gieves, Matthews & Seagrove, sold at £2500.

Sold within estimate at £400, an unsigned watercolour depicted HMS Hood in Valetta Harbour.

All except one of the Kerr lots went to the same buyer, a UK private collector, who was bidding on the phone. The lot they did not purchase was the watercolour, which went to an online bidder.

Dawsons reported "competition for all of the lots both on other phones and online, with some pre-sale commission bids taken out quite early on. Interest from other parties was a mix of private bidders, as well as people representing institutions".

One of the institutions was unable to match the bidding for the medals and ephemera group, so ended up disappointed to miss out.