“Good Lord!” tweeted Charles Miller after an extraordinary bidding battle emerged on a particular lot at his latest auction.
“A portrait of Lord Nelson that has resurfaced after 20 years sold for £248,000 in yesterday’s auction... didn’t see that one coming.”
The picture in question, which flew over a £6000-8000 estimate and made a hammer price of £200,000 (Miller quoted the price with 24% buyer’s premium added), posted the second-highest ever price at auction for a portrait of the great vice admiral.
The image itself was highly familiar. The 2ft 5in x 2ft (74 x 61cm) oil on canvas was one of several copies of a portrait painted by the Italian artist Leonardo Guzzardi (fl. late 18th century) after Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
The full-length original, which was probably painted in Naples or Palermo and commissioned by Sir William Hamilton, now hangs in the Admiralty Board Room in London.
A number of copies were made at around the same time – Nelson himself commissioned six of them from Guzzardi, including one for Grand Sultan Selim III of Turkey who had sent him many magnificent gifts following the battle including the striking diamond Chelengk shown at the centre of his bicorn (described as ‘one of the most famous and iconic jewels in British history’).
Nelson in demand
Despite Guzzardi painting multiple versions, the fact that Nelson portraits were much in demand meant that other artists also copied the portrait – including one Matthew H Keymer (1764-1816), who painted the version offered at the Charles Miller sale on April 25 in west London.
In November 1800, the little-known painter from Great Yarmouth was asked to produce a bust-length copy of Hamilton’s picture after Nelson, in company with Sir William and Lady Hamilton, had arrived at the Norfolk town en route to London.
He was seemingly chosen as the only local artist of sufficient stature to copy the Guzzardi portrait for a Lady Wright. Very soon afterward, Keymer, presumably spotting a commercial opportunity, had John Young make an engraving of the picture – a mezzotint which added to the portrait’s fame and nowadays occasionally comes up for sale (one made £360 at Charles Miller in 2017).
After leaving Lady Wright’s collection, the Keymer painting came to be owned by Captain Sir Richard Pearson, a naval commander from Norwich who served on the frigate Serapis after it was launched in 1779.
The portrait changed hands a number of times and was later bought by Captain Paul Hammond (the first American member of the Royal Yacht Squadron) in 1926 and was consigned to Bonhams Oxford in 2005 by his niece.
Back then it sold at £6600 including premium, bought by a Nelson collector from whose estate it came to Charles Miller.
While the estimate at the current sale was in line with the 2005 price, this time around the result was entirely different as it drew at least three parties prepared to bid over £80,000.
Why such a difference in demand? This was partly due to the history of these early copies of Guzzardi’s work becoming more fully realised in the intervening years.
In 2017, dealer Philip Mould unearthed one of Guzzardi’s paintings and, after restoration and removal of overpaint, the work revealed Nelson’s scar to the forehead and missing eyebrow – injuries he sustained from flying metal at the Battle of the Nile.
This greater honesty about the sitter’s appearance gave it an authenticity often in contrast to the usual ‘heroic’ image of most Nelson portraits.
The current work also demonstrated such traits: it showed the eyebrow growing back and the scar on Nelson’s forehead was visible under UV light. Miller believed that the fact that the artist Keymer had actually met Nelson in the flesh also influenced this portrait, including how he used light shadow to portray features of the sitter’s physiognomy.
“Ultimately it’s rare to have a contemporaneous portrait of Nelson and one he was likely familiar with,” said Miller. “In a sense the bidders were as much interested in it as an artefact as a piece of art.”
On the day, the bidding rose quickly and two private buyers, both Nelson collectors, battled it out after it reached £80,000. One was from the US bidding online and the other was a European buyer on the phone to whom the lot was eventually knocked down at £200,000. The sum was a house record for a picture at Charles Miller.
The only portrait of Nelson to fetch more at auction was one by Lemuel Abbott (1760-1802) that took £260,000 at Sotheby’s in 2005. The current picture, though, outsold another of Abbott’s much-admired portraits that made £164,800 including premium at Christie’s, also in 2005.
Elsewhere at the auction, a rare painting of a 17th century warship by Jan Karel Donatus van Beecq (1638-1722) came from a vendor who had bought it for £14,000 at an auction in 2014.
While back then the actual ship depicted was unknown, Miller was able to identify the vessel as the Woolwich – one of six ‘Oxford’ class vessels ordered in 1670 but of which, in the event, only two were completed.
Named after the yard where she was built, the Woolwich was 138ft long and weighed 741 tons. She had battle-scarred career, playing her part in the battles of Bantry Bay (May 1689), Beachy Head (June 1690) and Barfleur (May 1692) before later acting as a convoy escort on routes to Russia, Newfoundland, Virginia and the Baltic. She was finally broken up at Deptford in August 1736.
While normally it is very difficult to identify an unnamed vessel in a painting such as this, in this instance van Beecq’s meticulous attention to detail was of crucial importance.
Woolwich not only had four lower deck stern ports – a very unusual, if not unique, feature in a ‘4th rate’ ship of her era – she also had four circular and highly distinctive apertures or ‘holes’ in her stern which, it has been suggested, were extra gunports for use in emergencies. Both features were shown in the work here.
The 3ft 4in x 2ft 10in (1.01m x 87cm) oil on canvas, signed and dated 1677 to the lower right, was a stern view of the vessel raising sail. An unsigned drawing of the ship can be found in the British Museum’s collection, a work dated 1676 which was possibly a study for this picture by van Beecq.
Miller decided to show it on the front of the sale catalogue, in part due to its visual quality but also because works by the Dutch artist who was active in England from 1677-9 do not come to the market very often, especially works from this short period and in this larger size.
The £20,000-30,000 estimate may have looked ambitious considering the artist had only reached the lower level on a couple of occasions – including the record picture A Dutch harbour at sundown that took £38,000 at Phillips back in 1995.
But, on the day, Miller’s confidence was rewarded as the bidding reached £26,000 at which point the lot was sold online to a UK collector with a close connection to Woolwich (the location in the London docklands).
Liner sails off to the US
Among the 20th century works at the auction, a painting of RMS Queen Mary, the former Cunard-White Star ocean liner, sold for £11,000, a high price for the artist William McDowell (1888-1950), even if it was toward the lower end of the £10,000-15,000 estimate.
The 2ft 9in x 5ft 3in (84cm x 1.6m) signed oil on canvas was the original painting on which the artist’s well-known poster of the ship produced in c.1938 was based.
Although copies of the poster tend to sell for £200-400 on the current market, this picture had been acquired by the vendor at a John Nicholson’s auction in 2018 where it sold for £12,000 – still seemingly a record for the artist.
The underbidder from 2018 had another go here but, sadly for them, they lost out again, this time to an American collector.