Portrait thought to be of Catharine Sedgwick catalogued as ‘English school, 19th century’ – £1650 at Aldridges of Bath.

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This was seemingly on account of its rare and historical subject. The back of the picture offered at Aldridges of Bath (20% buyer’s premium) on July 26 had an old and somewhat faint inscription: Portrait of Miss Catharine Sedgwick.

Catharine Sedgwick (1789-1867) was an American novelist who is regarded by scholars as an important figure in the emergence of a distinctly American literary tradition.

Painted by an unknown hand, the 10½ x 9¼in oil on canvas was catalogued simply as ‘English school, 19th century’ and given a two-line entry. It came to auction as part of a deceased estate from a house in a small town near Bath, and the family were unaware where or how their late father may have acquired it.

It had a few knocks as well as some areas of paint loss and craquelure.

On the day, the bidding opened at £300 and the lot drew competition between a Home Counties client, a New York bidder and a buyer from the West Country who eventually won out at £1650.

American classics

Sedgwick was born in Stockbridge, a town in Massachusetts surrounded by the Berkshire Mountains that provided the setting of her ‘breakthrough’ novel, A New England Tale from 1822.

Her 1835 novel The Linwoods, which deals with themes relating to the American character and national identity in the years of early republic, is arguably her most recognised work.

ATG contacted Prof Melissa Homestead of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the current president of the Catharine Maria Sedgwick Society, in order to gauge whether the current picture might be a significant discovery. She felt that the painting did “plausibly” look like Sedgwick and pointed out that the author had made a trip to England in 1839 which was documented in her book Letter from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841).

While images of Sedgwick are well known from the engravings that adorned her books, original portraits are extremely rare.

Most of the engravings, including those made by the celebrated US artist Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), are based on a portrait of her by Charles Cromwell Ingham (c.1796-1863), an Irish portrait painter who emigrated to the US in c.1816. The original remains with the Sedgwick Family Society and Trust and hangs in the family house in Stockbridge where the writer’s descendants still live.

However, a later painting of Sedgwick by Ingham thought to date from c.1836 more closely resembles the painting in Bath. The current location of that Ingham painting is untraced but it is known through a photograph that was reproduced in Remembering by Nathalie Sedgwick Colby (published in 1938).

With regards to the portrait at Aldridges, if a stronger connection can be established to the US novelist the price at the auction would surely prove to be a notable bargain.