This is probably because the sitters are often instantly recognisable – a portrait of Henry VIII, for example, will always stand out among a group of more generic sitters in Old Master portraits.
Portrait copies of English monarchs and other members of the royal family are a regular feature at auctions around the country and, thanks to the subject matter, they often gain attention beyond what may otherwise be merited in terms of their artistic appeal or rarity.
When it comes to Tudor and Stuart portraits, a few dozen portraits of royal figures crop up on the market each year – mostly workshop versions or copies by later followers. A ‘primary’ portrait from the hand of the commissioned artist (ie a ‘master’ portrait) is a much rarer beast and of course much more valuable, such as a portrait of Princess Mary, the daughter of King Charles I, by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) which made £5m at Christie’s in 2018.
Further down the price scale, studio portraits can still find appeal and often generate good money both at auctions in London and elsewhere.
Among the works catalogued as such offered over the last year was a large painting of Charles I on horseback which came up at Dreweatts’ (25% buyer’s premium) Old Master, British and European Art sale on December 14. Catalogued as ‘Circle of Sir Anthony van Dyck’, it was estimated at £50,000-80,000 in Newbury.
It was believed the 4ft 7in x 3ft 6in (1.39 x 1.08m) oil on canvas was a reduced sketch of the famous original that was commissioned by Charles in 1633 for the Long Gallery at St James’s Palace – a work that remains part of the Royal Collection today and is now at Windsor Castle.
The king and horse are depicted the same size as in the ‘primary’ finished work but the painting here did not include whole sections such as the triumphal arch to the background and the figure of the monarch’s equerry Pierre Antoine Bourdin, Seigneur de St Antoine, to the foreground.
Numerous versions of the portrait exist – both studio and later portraits – as the celebrated and well-known image was in high demand from owners of country houses, including some outside England. But the fact that this example did not measure a standard size (4ft 2in x 3ft 4in was more typical), as well as the outer parts of the composition being left unresolved, suggested that it had always been intended as a fragment of a larger and more sophisticated version rather than simply a generic replica likely produced more quickly.
The painting at Dreweatts had a provenance going back to the early 19th century: it had sold for 150gns from the collection of the painter Richard Cosway in 1821. Cosway had been a leading portraitist of the Regency period and was appointed Principal Painter to the Princes of Wales in 1785.
It then sold again at a Phillips sale in 1832 for £64 before entering the collection of The Blackett Family of Matfen Hall in Northumberland.
Although there was no suggestion that it contained the hand of van Dyck, the auction house believed it was well executed, especially some of the features to the horse, the lace around Charles’ neck and the king’s hand that clasps the baton.
It was eventually knocked down at £50,000. Although a low-estimate sum, it was still a decent amount of money for a ‘circle of’ painting lacking the hand of the master.
In terms of comparable works sold previously, an early copy of another equestrian portrait of Charles I catalogued as ‘after’ van Dyck made £60,000 at Christie’s 2007, while another portrait of the king in a more conventional format with no horse present and catalogued as a studio work took £28,000 at Sotheby’s back in 1996.
Meanwhile, a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69), the wife of Charles I, catalogued as ‘after’ van Dyck generated good interest against a £3000-5000 estimate at Woolley & Wallis (25% buyer’s premium) in Salisbury on March 1.
The 4ft 2in x 3ft 4in (1.27 x 1.01m) oil on canvas was again a copy of an original from the royal collection (this one is now kept at Buckingham Palace).
The original from 1632 is thought to be the first single portrait of the queen painted by van Dyck after he arrived in London and it provided a type from which many variations by the artist and his assistants followed, as well as copies by later hands.
When such works emerge at auction, their relationship to the original, as well as the usual factors of condition and provenance, tend to be the main determinants of value.
This example showing the sitter in a silk dress, pearl necklace and earrings followed the original fairly closely, though there were some compositional differences. Its provenance was listed going back to the 1930s when it was owned by the Acquavella Gallery in New York and it had previously appeared at a Freeman’s sale in Philadelphia in December 2009 where it fetched $8500 (£5175).
Here, with the picture attracting a number of parties against a keen pitch, it sailed over predictions and was knocked down at £17,000.
Another portrait of a queen appearing at Woolley & Wallis, although at a sale on August 11 last year, was a copy of a famous image of a young Queen Victoria.
The original painted in 1842 by German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-73) is now in the Château de Versailles but this 4ft 2in x 3ft 2in (1.27m x 96cm) oil on canvas was painted by an artist called BA Butler in 1897 (the year of her Diamond Jubilee).
This version was identically scaled to Winterhalter’s original and had a good resemblance showing the 24-year-old monarch wearing a low-cut white evening dress with the insignia of the Garter around her left arm and a large brooch, similar to the one given to her by Prince Albert as a wedding present two years earlier.
Winterhalter produced several copies of the portrait and, again, plenty of other replicas were also made. However, none painted during Victoria’s reign had seemingly emerged at auction before until this same work sold at Woolley & Wallis in December 2014 for £2500. With the private collector who purchased it back then now the seller here, it was estimated at £2000-3000 but, this time, was bid to £3800.