Angelica Kauffman's May portrait

One of Angelica Kauffman’s group portraits of Mary May (1745-1824) with her daughters Maria Emilia, Louisa and Sophia Margaret.

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The oil on canvases are of Mr and Mrs Joseph May and their children. They were painted in 1780 and had been commissioned by Joseph May (1730-96), for Hale Park in Hampshire. They remained in the family until they were sold in the 1886.

More recently the portraits changed hands in 1995 at auction and were offered again at Sotheby’s on December 4, 2013.

The current owner applied for an export licence but it has been temporarily refused by The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest committee. The committee made its recommendation on the grounds that the departure of this pair of paintings from the UK would be a “misfortune because of their outstanding significance for the study of 18th century portraiture”.

The decision on the application will be deferred until July 24. A total of £1.5m plus VAT of £300,000 is needed to buy the paintings from the current owner.

Committee member Professor Mark Hallett said: “Angelica Kauffman was one of the most important painters working in late 18th century Britain and this is an especially interesting example of her output.

“This double portrait of the May family, in which Mary May is pictured with her daughters, and Joseph May with his sons, is extremely unusual in splitting up its male and female subjects in such a direct way… They make a powerful contribution to our understanding of Georgian portraiture.”

Angelica Kauffman's May portrait

One of Angelica Kauffman’s group portraits of Joseph May (1730-96) with his sons Joseph, Thomas Charles and John.

Kauffman, who died in Rome in 1807, is best known as one of two female founders of the Royal Academy of Art, alongside Mary Moser. Swiss by birth, she moved to England in her 20s to focus on painting.

In London, Kauffman was close to the English painters Nathaniel Dance and Sir Joshua Reynolds and she painted the wealthy patrons of the day.

The May family were a wealthy merchant family based in Portugal and owned a British wine factory in Lisbon. In 1775 they came to England and later bought Hale Park, and undertook extensive refurbishments under the supervision of the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806). It seems the two pictures were conceived specifically to be displayed in the newly remodelled house.