The interesting subject, excellent provenance and the fact that the work was well known to the artist’s admirers helped in its favour. Its condition was more problematic.
The sitter, who died aged 96 in 2010, had kept the work all her life and it came to Cambridge auction house Cheffins (22.5% buyer’s premium) from her estate.
Johnstone’s mother was the pianist Nora Brownsword who, according to Gwyneth’s obituary in The Telegraph, “had been seduced by Augustus John when posing for him shortly before the First World War”.
A gifted artist herself, Johnstone studied at the Slade from 1933-38, where she began a lifelong friendship with Mary Fedden. The picture at Cheffins is the most famous portrait of her – probably painted when, aged 17, she briefly shared a London studio with her father.
It featured in an article in World of Interiors in 2007 and alongside the obituaries of the artist that appeared in The Telegraph and The Times. The latter referred to the work as “a fresh, characteristically freely-stated and clearly affectionate study of the beautiful young woman who gazes quizzically out at him, and us, from beneath her mop of auburn hair”.
However, the 2ft 5in x 20in (75 x 50cm) oil on panel from 1932 had a number of condition issues. The auction house noted a split to the panel and numerous paint losses. This no doubt led to a relatively cautious pitch of £6000-8000.
However, it was eventually knocked down at £26,000 to a private client.
As well as the Burne-Jones drawings bought by the Delaware Art Museum, the Cheffins sale offered a group of three marine paintings by John Thomas Serres (1759-1825) showing the 32-gun frigate called The Amazon in the West Indies.
Two of the works showed the ship caught in the disastrous hurricane in 1780 which led to the loss of 13 British Royal Navy vessels and seriously damaged coastal fortifications. The other showed the near wreck of The Amazon entering the harbour of St Lucia.
All of the works measured 2ft 5in x 3ft 7in (74cm x 1.09m) and were believed to have been commissioned by William Clement Finch (1753-94), a member of an old naval family. It had passed down to the vendor by family descent.
While Serres has a decent following at auction, the detailed topographical features of the St Lucia picture in particular were an attraction.
Offered as a single lot and estimated at £8,000-12,000, the group was eventually knocked down at £17,000 to a Californian dealer.