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It doesn’t matter how the consignments come in, just as long as they do.

One of the more unusual backstories to securing an important group of works was recently recounted to ATG by marine specialist Charles Miller (24% buyer’s premium).

“An auctioneer colleague from my Christie’s days dropped off some curtains his wife had made for the vendor’s wife,” he said. “He established the family had a naval connection [they were directly descended from a famous admiral of the fleet] and that they had some paintings that were now too large for their Suffolk farmhouse and, unlike the curtains, were not being hung.

“As marine and naval specialists, we were an obvious choice for selling them.”

Naval great

The admiral in question was John Jervis (1735-1823), a towering figure in naval history and key participant in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The pictures comprised a group of three naval battle scenes and three family portraits. Offered as four separate lots, together they raised £175,000 and helped Miller to his second highest-ever total, only behind a 2009 auction which included a union flag from Trafalgar sold for a record £320,000.

The three maritime views were commissioned by Jervis himself to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in February 1797. They showed three key moments from the action that matched a numerically superior Spanish fleet against British tactics.

One picture shows how Jervis decided to concentrate his main attack on the enemy’s windward division of 17 ships. The ‘middle’ painting shows the British holding the line with HMS Victory in the centre with a blue flag. The third work depicts the decisive moment in the battle: Commodore Nelson (as he was then) personally leading the boarding party and crossing decks to one of the two ships he seized from the enemy.

The victory earnt Jervis the title of Earl St Vincent and it proved a pivotal moment in Nelson’s career too. He emerged from the battle with his reputation made and was promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue. A tiny figure in the painting in a bicorn hat with an arm aloft which can be glimpsed is believed to be Nelson himself.

Miller described the pictures as “almost as good as it gets”.

Alongside the traditional variables of artist, subject matter, market freshness and condition there are also a few other key qualities that make for a good naval picture. Buyers look for historical accuracy (some are sticklers for detail) and the closer the date of the painting to the date of the actual encounter the better. An eyewitness depiction is therefore the highpoint.

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Detail of the William Elliott oil showing the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797 with Nelson leading the boarding party up HMS Captain’s bowsprit to take the Spanish three-decker San Nicolas.

The details in all three works were thought to be entirely accurate. The artist, Lieutenant William Elliott, RN (fl.1784-91), may not have been quite in the top rank of naval painters, but he was certainly highly competent and may have been present at the battle himself (a later note kept by the Jervis family stated that was indeed the case).

These were also ‘the commander’s pictures’ – the ones commissioned and owned by the man in charge who almost certainly would have supplied details of the action. Evidence suggests that the artist may have adapted the composition to gain greater accuracy, presumably at Jervis’ instruction.

Pictures of the Battle of Cape St Vincent are rare (the encounter in the southern-most tip of the Iberian peninsula comes up much less frequently than Trafalgar, for example) and having three works together was a bonus.

Despite some condition issues – the 2ft 3in x 3ft 11in (69cm x 1.18m) oils on canvas had been covered in bitumen in the past and had some overpaint, craquelure and dirty varnish – they were as good as anything by Elliott that had emerged at auction previously.

Estimated at £40,000-60,000, the lot drew interest from a number of parties and was knocked down at £90,000 to an agent bidding for a private UK collector who has a particular interest in naval history and Nelson himself.

In terms of the highest prices for the artist, the equivalent sum per picture (£30,000) was only behind the £36,000 bid for Elliott’s painting of Admiral Rodney’s flagship Formidable which sold at Christie’s in May 2005.

Jervis family portraits

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A portrait of John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, showing the sitter in his younger days. Catalogued as a 19th century work ‘after’ Francis Cotes’ original from c.1769, it sold for £12,000 at Charles Miller.

The three portraits from the Jervis collection were offered as separate lots and all drew attention. One was a 19th century copy of Francis Cotes’ (1726-70) portrait of John Jervis himself (the original is now in the National Portrait Gallery).

Despite a few condition issues – it had two holes, some paint chipping and needed a clean – bidders reacted favourably against a £1500-2500 estimate and it was knocked down at £12,000 to a US buyer.

The other two portraits were more commercial paintings of elegant and fashionably dressed women. Miller admitted that it was unusual for him to sell swaggering society portraits but it seemed to make sense to keep the group together.

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A portrait of Mary Anne by James Godsell Middleton – £52,000 at Charles Miller.

Bringing hefty levels of competition against a £1000-1500 estimate was a 4ft 1in x 3ft 3in (1.25m x 99cm) oil on canvas of Mary Anne Forester, née Jervis, the niece of the naval commander. The painting was by James Godsell Middleton (1826-72).

Again the condition was not ideal - it had been relined, and had some old retouching throughout - but the main attraction here again was the subject.

Forester was a noted beauty who was known for her singing talents and is depicted here holding a musical manuscript. While rumoured to enjoy an amorous connection with the Duke of Wellington, in 1840 she married Dyce Sombre. Within a few years she filed for a Commission of Lunacy against her husband and the pair separated in 1843. She later married George, the third Lord Forester, in 1862.

Middleton is not a well-known artist and his work has rarely exceeded £2000 at auction. But here a couple of bidders were prepared to go to considerable lengths to secure it and it was eventually knocked down at £52,000 to the same US buyer who bought the John Jervis portrait.

The buyer referred to it as a ‘lost’ work – a reference to the fact that it was a known Royal Academy exhibit in 1831 and had been published as a stipple engraving in 1834. The price was a landmark sum for Middleton and an auction record many times over.

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A portrait of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Jervis by Thomas Hudson – £21,000 at Charles Miller.

The third portrait from the collection also drew good bidding. It depicted John Jervis’ sister Catherine ‘Kitty’ Jervis in flamboyant attire and holding a feather – “her party dress” according to Miller.

Dating from c.1755, it was painted by Thomas Hudson (1701-79) and very similar to another portrait by the artist of Lady Oxenden, a work now in the Gallery of New South Wales in Australia. Miller suggested that the artist had reused the same format and props for his different clients. “Only the sitter’s face is altered,” he said, “otherwise they could have been painted side by side.”

The 4ft 1in x 3ft 3in (1.25m x 99cm) oil on canvas was in the best condition of the Jervis works although it too would have benefited from a clean. Estimated at £4000-6000, it was knocked down at £21,000 to the London trade.

These four Jervis lots provided a significant chunk of the auction overall total of £557,570 from 393-lots of which 83% was sold.

Eight hours of auction

Miller felt that the online-only format worked well for the sale, even though it meant the auction lasted eight hours in all. Although three weeks of ‘by appointment’ viewing was permitted, plenty of online bidders had not physically viewed the works.

“We drowned the online catalogue with lots of images, showing the objects from every angle and put condition reports for each lot,” he said. “Even before the lockdown we were trying to be comprehensive with our cataloguing but now even more so now.”

In terms of gaining consignments, he said the firm had benefited from offering a free pick-up service for vendors. He thought both of these upgrades in services to buyers and sellers will remain post-lockdown. “It means I can save a bit on travel costs too,” he said.