They appeal not only to buyers looking for elegant pictures with a discernible period feel, but, to some minds at least, they are also interesting from an art historical perspective, bridging the forms and techniques of traditional formal portraiture with an emerging modern style.
Among recent examples on the market, a pastel portrait of a society lady, thought to be Guinevere Sinclair, emerged at Canterbury Auction Galleries (22.5% buyer’s premium) on December 3-4.
The artist was Artur Lajos Halmi (1866-1939), a Hungarian painter who specialised in portraits of fashionable women.
Sinclair was a chorus girl in New York who had a long-standing affair with the married American railroad magnate George Jay Gould, 20 years her senior. They had three children and married in 1921 but Gould died the following year.
After then marrying George St John Brodrick (1888-1979), 2nd Earl of Midleton, she moved to Eastwell Manor, near Ashford in Kent, in 1930. Brodrick later moved out in 1963 to live with his mistress but Guinevere remained at Eastwell – as did this portrait.
The 4ft 9in x 3ft (1.44m x 90cm) pastel was signed and dated 1913, two years after she and Gould had begun their affair. It had previously sold at Canterbury Auction Galleries, making £3200 in 2018.
Here it carried a lesser estimate of £1000- 1500 but drew interest again, this time making £2200 – still a decent sum for the artist.
Bringing even more competition, a portrait of Barbara Walsh by Cathleen Sabine Mann (1896-1959) was among the lots in demand at Dreweatts (25% buyer’s premium) on December 14.
Barbara Walsh was the London-based American girlfriend of Wing Commander Herbert Benjamin Bell-Syre (aka ‘Micky’).
Bell-Syre had an impressive career in the Royal Air Force, being wounded when his Hurricane was shot down over France in May 1940 but then working as a test pilot at Boscombe Down.
The portrait was kept at Walsh’s Chelsea apartment and it had remained there ever since. She left the property to Bell-Syre who in turn left it along with the contents to his partner, Patricia, Lady Foley, the consignor’s mother.
Mann was a notable portraitist who was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy after 1930.
The daughter of the Scottish portrait painter Harrington Mann (1864-1937), she was something of a society figure herself (in 1926 she married Francis Douglas, 11th Marquess of Queensberry).
Two of her portraits from 1952, depicting Sir Matthew Smith and Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, are now in the National Portrait Gallery but commercially she has never been as prominent as many of her contemporaries.
However, the 2ft 6in x 20¼in (76 x 52cm) oil on canvas here was a striking example of her work from before the Second World War, making it a rarer buying opportunity.
Estimated at £2000-3000, this helped the work surpass expectations as it was pursued by a number of bidders before being knocked down at £10,000.
The sum was a significant auction record for Mann, surpassing the £4200 for Woman at the Fair achieved at Christie’s sale of the Peter Langan collection in 2012.