Mary Beale’s portrait of Gertrude Savile, Marchioness of Halifax, sold by dealer Peter Harrison to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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The large oil on canvas, 4ft 2in x 3ft 3in (1.26 x 1m), depicts Gertrude Savile, Marchioness of Halifax (1641-1727). It was acquired by the MFA for a six-figure sum.

In December 2021 the picture came up for auction at a saleroom in south-east England, where it was catalogued as Circle of Henri Gascar (1635-1701), the sitter unidentified. It made £3200 on that occasion.

“I’ve found Beales before though not of this size, and she has quite a distinctive style,” Harrison said. Though he felt confident when he bought it, there followed nearly a year of research to nail down the picture’s history.

First, he found a Christie’s stencil to the back, which identified it as one of the lots in the 1918 sale of The Bretby Heirlooms. There it was catalogued as a portrait of the Duchess of Cleveland by Peter Lely.

However, further research led the dealer to identify it as from the family collection of the Earls of Chesterfield, and from there to identify the sitter as Lady Halifax. “She was the only sitter it could have been because of the date and because so many of her relatives had been painted by Beale,” Harrison adds.

Her father, politician William Pierrepont, was an MP during the civil war and Protectorate and, after the Restoration, was elected to the new Council of State. He and his family patronised Beale, who painted him and his son-in-law as well as his daughter.

George Savile, Gertrude’s husband, probably commissioned this picture to be hung as a pendant to his own portrait by the artist. The pair - Lord and Lady Halifax - lived in Halifax House, a grand 50-room house on St James’s Square, not far from Beale’s house and studio on Pall Mall. Gertrude was a popular society lady and would go on to be godmother to William, Duke of Gloucester, son of Queen Anne.

The portrait probably hung at Halifax House until she moved to a large house on Park Place in 1698 and it is likely she then left it to her grandson Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who hung it in Bretby Park.

Beale’s profile has undergone a dramatic rise in the last few years. Though long obscured in 19th century historical accounts, she was a leading artist of her day and painted many members of high society.

The artist was at the height of her success when she completed this picture, c.1679. In 1677 she had her most lucrative year, painting 83 commissions for a grand total of £429.