Those who viewed the 2ft 2in x 22in (65 x 54cm) oil at Hansons were able to make out the faint signature top right and the date (probably reading 1930 or 1950).
An extra clue to its pedigree – and perhaps the tip that allowed several dealers to find this work online – was the mention of a label for the Roberts Gallery in Toronto. A Canadian art institution established in 1842, since the late 1940s the gallery has specialised in pictures by many of Canada’s best-known artists.
Although a landscape painter in the tradition of the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (1877-1917) in particular, Milne is deemed one of Canada’s most original artists. His personal style was nurtured by Impressionism and Fauvism and an artistic training in North America rather than in Europe.
A chronological exhibition of his work was held at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2018 and an exhibition of his watercolours titled Painting Towards the Light was also staged at the British Museum and the Met in 2005-06.
Both the style of this work and the medium suggest the picture was probably painted shortly after 1929, when Milne returned from Boston Corners in upstate New York to settle permanently in Canada, stopping for brief periods in Temagami, Weston, Palsgrave and then a secluded cabin at Six Mile Lake, north of Orillia.
During this period he worked primarily in oil. After 1937 he worked almost entirely in watercolour. While the price realised was way in excess of what vendor and auction house were expecting, Milne is an artist whose prime period works regularly bring over Can$100,000 and have made over Can$1m.
The buyer on the phone, who saw off a competitor in the room, was described as a private international collector.
Chris Kirkham, associate director of Hansons London, said: “This was one of four paintings found at Eaton Cottage which sparked huge interest.
“The col lection was gathered over 80 years by the late Alastair Stewart (1908- 79), a Royal Academician and chief of art restoration for the former Ministry of Works and his son Torquil Stewart, 81, who is recently retired from the film industry.”