Henri Matisse, Portrait of Mrs Hutchinson
‘Portrait of Mary Hutchinson’ by Henri Matisse – £2.6m at Sotheby’s.

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Estimated at £2m-3m at the auction on June 19, it drew interest from three parties including a bidder on the telephone and the eventual buyer who left a commission bid. The absentee bids were placed in the room by Sotheby’s senior international specialist Philip Hook.

The picture was a rare example of a portrait of a named sitter by Matisse. It was also one of only a handful where the artist depicted a British subject.

Hutchinson was a cousin of the writer Lytton Strachey and friend of Duncan Grant. She often posed for painters including Vanessa Bell and had a long-lasting affair with her husband Clive Bell.

It was the latter who introduced Hutchinson to Matisse. He drew her portrait twice in his Paris studio in June 1936, both charcoal works on paper.

One of them was kept in the artist’s personal collection, but this 2ft 2in x 20in (66 x 50cm) charcoal and estompe on paper (which was the more elaborate of the two) remained with the sitter.

It came to Sotheby’s from the Hutchinson’s son, the celebrated criminal barrister Lord Hutchinson of Lullington whose notable clients included Christine Keeler, George Blake and Howard Marks.

Mary Hutchinson later wrote that “in spite of all people say I think he [Matisse] is delightful” and, on the occasion of Matisse’s final visit to London in 1937, she hosted a lunch party for the artist.

Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art specialist Thomas Boyd-Bowman described the portrait as “executed with the utmost elegance and economy of means”.

Mary Hutchinson by Cecil Beaton

Cecil Beaton’s photograph of Mary Hutchinson. Image copyright: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

Kandinsky's colourful abstract

Elsewhere in the sale, a colourful abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) drew demand against a £3-5m estimate and was knocked down on the phone at £4.5m. The pitch looked relatively attractive given the fact that two works by the artist made £29m and £18.5m at the equivalent sale at Sotheby’s last year.

The 13 x 18in (33 x 45cm) oil on board Gabriele Münterim Freienvor der Staffelei (Gabriele Münter Painting Outdoors in front of an Easel) dated from 1910, a period when the artist was still in his transition toward abstraction.

The painting shows Gabriele Münter – Kandinsky’s lover and fellow artist – in a Bavarian landscape, most likely in the countryside around the small town of Murnau in the foothills of the Alps.

The work had been kept by fellow artist Alexej von Jawkensky, who spent many productive years working alongside Kandinsky in Murnau. It had been acquired by the vendor’s family in 1967.

Wassily Kandinsky painting of Gabriele Munter

‘Gabriele Münterim Freienvor der Staffelei’ (Gabriele Münter Painting Outdoors in front of an Easel) by Wassily Kandinsky – £4.5m at Sotheby’s.

1932 Picasso

The sale was led by a Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) portrait of his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1932. Offered with an ‘estimate on request’, the picture was marked in the catalogue to indicate it was one of the lots backed with a guarantee, meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.

At the auction, Buste de femme de profil (femme écrivant) was knocked down at £24m to a lone telephone bidder.

Overall, the 36-lot sale generated a premium-inclusive total of £87.5m.

A bronze cast of Alberto Giacometti’s Le Chat also making a useful contribution to the bottom line when it sold at £11m to an unidentified bidder in the room.