Despite some concerns over its condition, the work dated 1606, had already been bid over its £40,000 low estimate by the time it was offered at the Newbury sale on December 14.
The portrait showing Thomas Pope, 3rd Earl of Downe (1598-1668), and his elder brother Sir William Pope, 2nd Earl of Downe (1596-1624), at the ages of eight and 10 came to auction from the collection of South African-born British financier Sir Mark Weinberg. It had previously resided at the Oxfordshire manor house Wroxton Abbey, the collection of which included several other notable portraits.
The two boys appear in the picture of familial harmony wearing matching clothes and holding hands – an early and unusual example of affection between siblings in British portraiture.
The artist was unknown although the painting has been associated with the Tudor court artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), who painted other members of the Pope family, including the boys’ mother Anne Hopton in 1596.
The 4ft 6in (1.38m) high oil on canvas was not without condition issues – it had been relined and was on a later stretcher with vertical lines running down through the sitters’ faces. It also had a somewhat abraded surface with extensive signs of scattered retouching visible under UV light as well as a layer of surface dirt and discoloured varnish.
While some leading members of the trade deciding against bidding on this basis, a number of bidders seemingly agreed with the Dreweatts' catalogue entry that concluded that the picture ‘should respond well to cleaning and revarnishing’.
As well as the presale bidding, an interested party on the phone and a determined internet bidder went head-to-head on the day. It was knocked down to the latter, a private UK collector, at £70,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium).
Whatever happened to the two boys? Thomas was knighted at Woodstock in 1625 and was later imprisoned by Royalists for six weeks during the English Civil War on suspicion of complicity in the ‘Cavalier Plot’.
William travelled to Italy from 1617-20 and on his return became the second and last of his family to sit in the House of Commons, serving as knight of the shire for Oxfordshire.