Experts agree that the portrait depicts George Eliot c.1845 (before she became a novelist, when she was known as Mary Ann Evans). It was possibly painted by a young artist picture restorer called George Barker, with whom she was briefly romantically linked and whose identity has only recently been identified.
The portrait is particularly interesting because it presents Eliot warts and all, in profile.
Her long face and hooked nose are honestly depicted, unlike almost all the later painted representations of the novelist, which largely flatter to deceive, presenting her as round-faced, straight of nose, even in one notorious instance, giving her blonde, curly hair!
Luckily, there is one surviving photograph that shows her true physiognomy – together with a phrenological portrait traced from a shadow, which is also accurate.
The story was written up in The Guardian a few weeks ago by Eliot’s most recent biographer, Kathryn Hughes, who is persuaded that the portrait is Eliot, as is the doyenne of Eliot scholars, Prof Nancy Henry.
The mystery remains, however, as to where the picture had been before its discovery at auction early last year. I traced it via the auctioneer and the previous owner to a market stall in the nearby town of Thame. I also managed to trace the market stallholder, who remembers the portrait but can’t remember where, or from whom, he bought it.
So where has it been for 170 years? I suspect it has been in the possession of descendants of the most likely artist – one George Barker Jnr – but perhaps it has simply been passed around the local trade as an anonymous 1840s portrait.
I am pursuing the provenance of the picture in the Thame area but wondered whether the erudite readers of ATG could help in discovering whether it had passed through the trade at any point in its life.
Sim Fine Art