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The English School double portrait, c.1650, sold for a hammer price of £220,000 at Trevanion.

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Depicting a black woman from the Cromwellian period makes it rare enough, but the fact that she appears dressed as a social equal to her counterpart makes it rarer still. The two figures, whose clothes, hair and jewellery point to the fashions of the period, are also shown wearing decorative patches to their faces – an equally voguish feature that added another layer of curiosity to the work.

The 2ft 1in x 2ft 6in (64 x 75cm) oil on canvas had been in the collection of Lloyd Tyrell-Kenyon, 6th Baron Kenyon, who died in 2019. It had been kept for at least a century at Gredington, the family’s Shropshire manor house which was demolished in 1980. The artwork came to nearby saleroom Trevanion (20% buyer’s premium) along with other paintings, books and works of art from Lord Kenyon’s estate.

Lord Kenyon was quoted in a 1949 article in Country Life as saying: “We have a curious picture which has hung here for many years, but of which I know of no real explanation.”

Catalogued as ‘English school, c.1650’ and given a £2000-4000 estimate at the June 23 sale, it drew extraordinary interest from dealers, private buyers and one or two institutions, as well as the 171 people ‘watching’ the lot on thesaleroom.com.

The pre-sale bids had already reached £21,000 before it was offered from the rostrum but, with all eight phone lines booked including from bidders in the US, Italy and The Netherlands, it underwent a seven-minute bidding battle before coming down to an intense two-way contest between a private collector from Hampshire and another buyer also based in the UK. It was knocked down to the latter at £220,000, generating a round of applause in the saleroom.

The price was a house record for Trevanion.

Among the underbidders was London dealer Philip Mould, who told ATG: “It was not artistically a work of note but, given its date and subject matter, this was amply compensated for by its socio-historical importance.” He pointed to the wearing of patches being rarely seen in formal portraiture as well as the “non-objectified portrayal of a black lady” as key to the interest in the work.

“You could well imagine how museums on both sides of the Atlantic would desire such an image with present needs to broaden subject matter and diversity in public collections.”

While the identity of the artist and sitters is unknown, Trevanion’s catalogue entry suggested that the painting may have been intended as ‘a moralistic warning to the viewer’ about the wearing of patches.

Patches had been used for centuries to cover up scars, sores and pustules, including those caused by venereal disease like syphilis. But during the 17th and 18th centuries, these patches, especially those made from expensive materials like silk or velvet, also came to be worn as adornments and were cut into decorative shapes as can be seen here.

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A detail of the inscription on the painting at Trevanion.

The fashion seemingly became fairly widespread and was associated with vanity and promiscuity by puritans. In 1650 Parliament debated passing an act against the ‘vice of painting and wearing black patches, and the immodest dress of women’. Although it did not make it into law, a wider crackdown did occur on ‘nightwalking’ (prostitution) and licentious behaviour during Cromwell’s rule.

The ‘puritan’s warning’ explanation of the picture was also implied by the inscription above the women that reads: I black with white bespott y white with blacke this evil proceeds from thy proud hart then take her: Devill.