Portrait of Sir Edward Mortimer Mountain by William Nicholson – £7900 at Dominic Winter.

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He could count many wealthy and celebrity sitters among his clients. One of the former was the underwriter and insurer Sir Edward Mortimer Mountain.

Mountain played a pivotal role in the history of the insurance industry through the foundation of Eagle Star, the first company to allow ‘all-in’ comprehensive policy for householders in 1916 (it covered liability, fire and accidents).

Described as ‘a small man with great authority and exuberance’, he was created a baronet in 1922 while a decade earlier his reputation had been enhanced by his refusal to insure the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage.

In 1917, Eagle Star set aside 500 guineas to commission a portrait of its founder. Nicholson began his portrait in February 1918 and wrote to his son: “I am painting a knight who looks like a postboy: makes £30,000 a year out of insurance – very psychic – owns all of Lorna Doone Country [a reference to Mountain’s country house, Orr Manor in Somerset].” He also wrote the sitter had the “face of an ostler”.

The 2ft 6in x 2ft 4in (77 x 72cm) signed oil on canvas remained with the Eagle Star company and was transferred to Zurich Financial Services when it took over the firm in 1999.

Formal portrait

A known work which appears in Patricia Reed’s catalogue raisonné of Nicholson’s paintings, it appeared at Dominic Winter’s (20% buyer’s premium) picture sale in South Cerney, Gloucestershire, held on October 19.

Estimated at £2000-3000, it sold at £7900. While Nicholson portraits have made considerably more, this example, being a formal portrait of a balding insurer, was probably less commercial than some, certainly when compared to the likes of brightly coloured The Yellow Jersey, a portrait of Nicholson’s only daughter Annie Mary ‘Nancy’ in an ostrich plume hat. That work made £150,000 at Thomas R Callan in 2017 and holds the auction record for a portrait by the artist.