The artist, born in New Zealand to British parents, specialised in portraits of ‘society’ figures and his notable commissions included Sir John Reith in 1934 (a work known as the ‘director general portrait’ still owned by the BBC) and Winston Churchill in 1946.
But a portrait that emerged at Nottingham saleroom Mellors & Kirk (24% buyer’s premium) on March 19 was of a less famous but more personal subject.
The painting of his father dressed in a black coat, hat and tie and with his gloved hands resting on a cane dated from 1903. Hugh Francis Birley (1855-1916) was born into a wealthy Lancashire family that owned a textile mill in Salford and this portrait depicted him as very much an Edwardian gentleman. It was also sensitively handled.
The 2ft 7in x 2ft 1in (79 x 63cm) signed oil on canvas was in ‘ready to hang’ condition in an ornate carved and gilded frame. It drew a good competition against a £1000-1500 estimate and was eventually knocked down at £5500 – among the highest prices for the artist at an auction outside London since Lyon & Turnbull of Edinburgh sold The Gamekeeper for £7500 back in 2005.
Also bringing interest at this sale was Beggar Woman and Child, an 17¼ x 12¼in (44 x 31cm) oil on canvas by American painter Benjamin West (1738-1820).
When it was sold by the artist’s sons in 1829, it was described in the sale catalogue as one of seven studies painted from life. Although some areas of the canvas may have seemed unfinished, the artist’s 1986 catalogue raisonné describes it as “virtually the only work of its kind by West now known”.
It sold on top estimate at £5000 and would have probably have made more if it was in more original condition (it had been relined and undergone some restoration in c.1950).