‘English School’ plumbago on vellum portrait miniatures

A group of four ‘English School’ plumbago on vellum portrait miniatures, £40,000 at Cheffins.

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Guided at £600-800, they hammered for £40,000 (plus 24.5% buyer’s premium) to a US-based private buyer at the December 6-7 auction at Cheffins.

As inscribed verso, the subjects of these graphite drawings are Mary Orlebar (1730-1821), Richard Orlebar (1736-1803) and Constantia Orlebar (1739- 1808) plus Miss Hacks, one of Mary’s friends. One was dated 1744 and it appears they were done together in a single sitting.

The Orlebar family lived at Hinwick House on the Bedfordshire-Northamptonshire border, a splendid Queen Anne country house built in 1709-14 by Richard Orlebar (1671-1733) that remained in the family until 1995. At the death of their father John Orlebar (1697- 1765), the unmarried sisters Mary and Constantia, along with Elizabeth (1732-1810) who is not depicted here, moved to Ecton, Northamptonshire.

The sisters had an active interest in literary matters and left behind their private writings, including Mary’s travel diaries and poems, and Constantia’s ‘Weather Book’, an important chronicle in which she recorded daily weather from 1786 until her death. It was the subject of an article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1955.

Style of James Ferguson

Although unsigned, these works are very much in the style of James Ferguson (1710-76). He is best known today as a scientist who, despite never receiving formal training, became famed for his travelling lectures and easy-to-understand works on the basics of astronomy, mechanics and electricity.

However, being from a humble background, he made his living as a portrait painter working predominantly in Indian ink and graphite.

Single images tend to bring modest sums - a large quantity of Ferguson portraits was sold by Bonhams Edinburgh in 2021 in lots of four and five for around £1000-2000 - but it was the survival of these works as a family group that was their main attraction. All images were in good condition with some small losses to the frames.

At a Sworders’ sale in December 2022, a similar family group of five plumbago miniatures by Ferguson sold well over hopes at £17,000.