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Most coveted of these was an exquisite red chalk drawing of the Virgin and the infants Christ and John the Baptist by the Lombard painter Bernardino Gatti, called Il Sojaro (c.1495-1575/6) that had formerly been in the collection of the noted antiquarian Dr. H. Wellesley (1791-1866). A pupil of Correggio who spent much of his career working in Cremona, Gatti is hardly a household name, but Old Master specialists clearly rate him as a draughtsman, judging by the £85,000 given at Christie’s back in July 1984 for a slightly larger and more elaborate squared-up chalk, brush-and-ink study of an Apostle.

Mallams’ 111/2 by 81/2in (29 x 22cm) drawing of the Virgin had also been squared, suggesting it might well have been the basis for an identifiable painting, but it was also commercial simply for being a highly attractive red chalk image of motherhood. Half a dozen telephone bidders contested this to £22,000 against an estimate that had originally started life at just £500-800.

From the same source, a black chalk drawing of a man’s head after the Antique attributed to the School of Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) was less of a hit with the Old Master trade, selling for £4200. Dealers’ enthusiasm returned for a speculative 18in by 2ft (46 x 61cm) canvas of Allegory of the Transition to Death attributed by the auctioneers to a Follower of Giovanni Batista Tiepolo (1696-1770), which presumably, at a price of £19,200 against an estimate of £400-600, might just have been a preliminary study for one of the Venetian master’s ceiling paintings.

The female painter Giulia Lama (1681-1747) is a rather less well known contemporary of Tiepolo, whose bold treatment of the male nude has recently received some academic attention. This particular aspect of her art was not on show in an ex-Colnaghi 17 by 13in (43 x 33cm) canvas of a boy standard bearer, but, helped by an elaborate period frame and a provenance traceable back to the Duchess of Northumberland, it fetched £10,000 against an estimate of £3000-4000.

But in terms of pure quality, dealers in English watercolours might have argued that the real star of this Mallams sale was the superb William Turner of Oxford (1789-1862) landscape, Stonehenge at Sunset, which fell to a member of the London trade for £17,500 against an estimate of £1000-1500 after feverish competition between four telephone bidders. Entered from another one of the sale’s three major estates, this 101/2 by 151/2in (26.5 x 39cm) sheet showing a distant Stonehenge gauntly silhouetted against a molten summer sky was, in terms of English watercolours, one of the most memorable images to have come up for sale in the provinces in recent years. Given that the auction record for William Turner of Oxford stands at £76,000 – set at Sotheby’s in 1999 for April Shower – this price, though undeniably impressive, could have been even more if this austere subject had featured more anecdotal detail and the English watercolour market as a whole were in a better state of health.

Overall this Oxford sale totalled £170,000 from 271 lots.