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Caroline Lay (pictured), art sale manager at David Lay, is the great-great niece of Ella Naper who sat for this painting by Laura Knight. It sold for £105,000 at the Penzance auction house.

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Dating from c.1913, it depicts Ella Naper – the same sitter who appears in the artist’s most famous painting Self-portrait with nude which dates from around the same time and is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

The auctioneer on the rostrum on January 28 was her great-great niece Caroline Lay, who is art sale manager at the auction house.

The catalogue entry suggested this was an ‘early study of Ella Naper that led to Knight’s most celebrated work’.

The 22in x 2ft 5in (55 x 73cm) oil on canvas had remained with Naper in Cornwall until she died in 1972.

It came to auction having never left the family, although it had spent a period on loan at Penlee House Gallery in Penzance. David Lay had known the painting for many years and previously valued it for insurance.

Estimated at £60,000-80,000, it attracted plenty of online interest but, on the day, the bidding came down to a two-way battle between a private buyer and a ‘well-known public institution’.

It was eventually knocked down to the former at £105,000.

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The nude study by Dame Laura Knight, c.1913, sold for £105,000 at David Lay in Penzance, Cornwall.

While around a dozen works have sold for more, including some of Knight’s larger coastal views such as Wind and Sun which made a record £780,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2009, this was the highest price at auction for a nude.

Knight’s sensuous nude portraits have a significant place in art history.

When Self-portrait with nude was first exhibited, it caused a sensation – the first time a female artist depicted herself in this way. At the time Knight had attended art school, women were not permitted to paint live models.

The larger work shows Naper standing and facing away from the viewer, while here she is depicted in profile sitting on a chair.

Naper, who had moved to Lamorna in Cornwall the year before this portrait was painted, appeared in a number of Knight’s pictures and became a lifelong friend. As well as a model, she was an accomplished jewellery designer, enamellist, potter and artist in her own right.

A further report of the sale will appear in next week’s Art Market.