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It added a gloss to a March 8 sale that included a house record £570,000 for a rediscovered canine portrait by il Guercino (see ATG No 2333).

Making its first appearance at auction was an attractive Elizabethan portrait of an unidentified young heiress clutching a small dog. The 2ft 10in x 2ft 2in (88 x 67cm) oil on panel had been owned by an unidentified “distinguished actor” in London, who had inherited it from his mother.

“She was a young beauty, an heiress, but despite our extensive research we couldn’t identify who she was,” said Sarah Flynn, head of the paintings department at Cheffins.

Flynn’s research into the sitter’s extravagant jewellery and dress did, however, offer clues as to her status and it was concluded that she was “quite possibly” one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour. Dendrochronology tests to the panels, which had suffered some unfortunate bowing, suggested a period of 1600-05.

Despite not knowing the identity of the sitter, which limited the picture’s value, two phones battled it out above the £15,000-20,000 guide to £54,000. The auction house said it drew both private and trade interest.

The price is in line with another early 17th century English School portrait that sold at Mitchells of Cockermouth in September 2015 for £52,000. While the portrait at Mitchells was of an identified sitter, Lady Parker, it was perhaps not as attractive as Cheffins’ picture.

Westacre portraits

Also included in the sale were a dozen portraits from Westacre High House, the former Norfolk residence of the Birkbeck family.

The house had been the family’s home for 250 years until it was sold in 2010 to sculptor Anthony Gormley. Much of its contents was sold at Cheffins at the time, while the portraits were held back and put into storage. Unsurprisingly, this fresh-to-market assemblage was keenly contested with all 12 lots finding buyers to total £83,980.

Four portraits depicted two generations of the aristocratic Walpole family, connected to Westacre through the estate’s original purchaser, Richard Hamond.

Hamond was a nephew of Sir Robert Walpole, considered Britain’s first Prime Minister.

An impressive 18th century portrait of Walpole painted by his favourite, the Irish artist Charles Jervas (c.1675-1739), led the group. It showed the sitter wearing the prestigious Order of the Bath insignia and the embroidered red Chancellor’s bag on a table beside him.

Thought to date to 1725, the 4ft x 3ft 3in (1.24 x 1m) oil on canvas, housed in a fine contemporary English frame, was painted as a gift for Walpole’s sister, Susan Hamond. Against a £7000-10,000 estimate, it sold for £28,000 to a phone bidder.

Another version of the painting attributed to Charles Jervas but without the direct descent provenance, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2006 for £12,500.

The same buyer also purchased a portrait of Walpole’s son, the 2nd Earl of Orford, thought to have been painted jointly in 1725 by Jervas and the landscapist John Wootton (1682-1764). It was acquired for £10,000 against a £5000-8000 estimate.

Jervas also painted Walpole’s sister, the Viscountess Townshend, whose ghost ‘The Brown Lady’ reportedly haunts Raynham Hall in Norfolk. A lavish full-length portrait of her holding a coronet sold for £5000, while a portrait attributed to Jervas of Walpole’s wife Catherine took £4400.

A doomed monarch

Aside from family portraits, the collection included a handful of Old Master copies and acquisitions from famous country house sales.

A swagger portrait of Louis XVI of France by Antoine-François Callet (1741-1823) and his studio had been acquired from the mammoth Stowe House sale of 1848.

The 5ft x 4ft 3in (1.54 x 1.3m) oil on canvas was presumed to be a gift to the family at Stowe by the future Louis XVIII, before he retook the French throne following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Callet was known to have painted the prime portrait of the doomed king in 1778 plus a further 15 versions. The man he painted wearing full coronation regalia was referred to as Citizen Louis Capet during the final weeks of his life.

This example, considered especially desirable due to its probable royal provenance, was secured by a phone bidder within estimate at £19,000. Just one other has made more, a version with provenance to Louis XVI himself, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in January 2013 for a premium-inclusive $350,500 (£221,800).

Among the Old Masters, a copy of Peter Paul Rubens’ (1577-1640) portrait of Michael Ophovius, which hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, outstripped a £3000-5000 estimate to sell for £8000.

Catalogued as ‘after’ Rubens, the 3ft 9in x 2ft 9in (1.16m x 84cm) oil on panel differs from the original with a cross on the priest’s Dominican robes.