Offered in Cambridge on April 21, the three-quarter-length work depicting him as a young teenager was estimated at £40,000-60,000. With bidding on the phone and online, it was knocked down at £90,000 (plus 24.5% premium) to London dealer Philip Mould who bought it back 13 years after he last handled it.
“We were thrilled,” Mould told ATG. “I’ve missed the boy greatly and for a while had him living at home. As a work of juvenilia by one of our most charismatic English artists it is exciting enough. To have him in the act of painting, palette and brush in hand – the perfect storm. We were very pleased with the price and had prepared ourselves for a more epic contest.”
The 9 x 8in (23 x 20.5cm) oil on paper, laid down on canvas, was dated to c.1740-42, not long after Gainsborough moved from his native Sudbury in Suffolk to London at the age of 13. It is among an important group of works that, over the last decade, have helped scholars shed light to the artist’s early style and development. It has featured in many publications on the artist and has been widely exhibited in the last 20 years including at Tate Britain, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The art historian and Gainsborough expert Hugh Belsey, who helped compile the catalogue entry at Cheffins, said that while “attributing the work he produced in his teenage years has been slow and remains contentious”, these pictures “reveal a path towards the well-known portrait of the Revd Hill’s dog Bumper” – a work dated 1745 thought to be among the artist’s first commissions (it is now in a private collection in Norfolk).
Most scholars have accepted the current picture as a good likeness of Gainsborough. The delicate, almost emaciated facial features can be seen in his Portrait with wife and child dating from c.1746 now in the National Gallery in London and a self-portrait drawing from the 1750s in the British Museum.
The picture had changed hands three times since 1974 when it was purchased from the estate of Ernest Albert Butcher in Australia – he was a descendant of Robert Butcher, the steward to Gainsborough’s famous patron, John, 4th Duke of Bedford (1710-71). After being acquired by the collector and dealer Neville Podmore, it later passed though London dealership Felder Old Master Paintings before it was purchased by Mould. In 2008, it was then acquired by the private Kensington collector who consigned it to Cheffins along with a selection of other pictures and objects.