Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

An astonishingly sensual portrait from the Restoration period lit up Bearnes, Hampton & Littlewoods’ (21% buyer’s premium) sale in Exeter.

The large 4ft 2in x 6ft 5in (1.29 x 1.96m) oil on canvas depicts a reclining full-length nude, flaunting her nakedness on a balustraded balcony, one arm raised towards a pair of doves and a Palladian house in the distance.

Known from reproductions but never offered at auction before, the painting is thought to have been executed by the studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) in c.1660 and is believed to depict the heiress Elizabeth Trentham (1640-1713).

Trentham married Brien Cokayne, the 2nd Viscount Cullen of Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire, and was known for her beauty, extravagance and immorality.

A Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen Consort Catherine of Braganza, she would almost certainly have experienced Charles II’s notoriously licentious court.

The face resembles that of the famous clothed portrait of Trentham by Lely, which resides at Kingston Lacy in Dorset.

The naked body, meanwhile, which appears to be painted by a different hand, is derived from Italian Renaissance paintings of Venus, particularly those associated with Titian and his followers.

“Trentham was known for her beauty, extravagance and immorality

BHL picture specialist Martin Scagell said: “It’s almost definitely the face of Viscountess Cullen, as per the portrait in Kingston Lacy, with possibly Lely’s hand detected in the face of ours. It looked pretty untouched by restorers and the craquelure was all in evidence. The body, however, had some quite clumsy restoration in places.”

The painting was first recorded at Rushton Hall in c.1660, when it was likely commissioned by Viscount Cullen for his private rooms. It remained in the Cokayne family until c.1850 when it passed by marriage to the Pery-Knox-Gores, a wealthy Irish family from County Mayo.

Consigned by a descendant based in Devon to BHL’s sale on July 11, it drew strong bidding from two parties and was eventually hammered down at £62,000, comfortably over its £8000-12,000 guide. The buyer was from the trade.

“It went in at a modest estimate and it was, in our opinion, very much from the studio of Peter Lely. I don’t think the result surprised us that much overall,” said Scagell.

“It’s difficult to put a value on a work that was essentially a period decorative painting, albeit with historical interest, especially if you believed it was a studio work and not by Lely himself.”

One other overtly sensuous portrait connected to Lely has appeared at auction – a work painted by the artist for Charles II of a young woman and child, as Venus and Cupid. Thought to be one of Charles’ mistresses, either Barbara Villiers or Nell Gwyn, it sold at Christie’s in July 2007 for a premium-inclusive £1.58m.