When I browsed the auctions online recently, a portrait of General Sir Herbert Taylor by Sir Thomas Lawrence caught my eye. Taylor, in a red army coat, has his head slightly turned against dramatic light, looking into distance pensively. With his slightly ruffled hair, bright eyes and rosy cheeks, he certainly looks youthful, handsome, and esteemed.
This could be a steal at the predicted $8,000 to $12,000 price. Even though auction houses sometimes place low starting prices on highly sought after items to attract more bidding, it seemed low for a work by one of the best portrait painters in England.
I began my research. Without much effort, I found a link from the Carnegie Museum of Art with the same title. The portrait is stunningly similar, except the subject is well lit, less sculptured and more fair-skinned. Taylor’s arched long eyebrow and full lower lip seem to grab viewer’s attention. This painting’s provenance is known back to May 1927— and through a few sales by Christies and Knoedler, it eventually landed in the hand of Marshall Sheppey of Toledo.
The Carnegie had been on long-time loan until 2008 and is part of estate bequest from Ms. Berdan, who inherited the painting. That painting is also listed in the book of “Sir Thomas Lawrence“ by Kenneth Garlick (illustrated on page 271). The auction painting also claims to be listed in the same book. Could both be listed? I began to wonder.
Well, that is not the end of it. Soon, I found another. This time, there is a painting in the Museum of Shenandoah Valley, not far from Washington DC, with the same title. With a slightly darkened background (compared to the one from Carnegie Museum of Art), Sir Taylor looks youthful and charming. However, it is noticeable that the golden-threaded epaulettes are less defined in this version. According to the website, the painting comes with provenance, including Newhouse Gallery, Sir John Moore of London, Samsom Fox of Harrogate, England and Lord Wavertree of London.
Given that Sir John Moore is a contemporary of Taylor, this provenance, at least based on the description, sounds convincing. It also should be noted that Sir John Moore had his own portrait painted by Lawrence around the same time (early 1800). The painting belongs to National Portrait Gallery of London. The two portraits, both featuring military uniforms, look alike in terms of composition, lighting and general facial expressions.
It is not unusual for an artist to make a few copies if the commission was well-received. Sometimes, the sitter would give an additional copy as a gift to friends and family members.
Could the artist profit from Sir Thomas Lawrence the same as say Gilbert Stuart and George Washington? Maybe.
When I relayed the information to the auction and inquiring about further provenance, I did not get a reply. However, I noticed that the auction house later changed the description to “After Sir Thomas Lawrence”.
Whoever changed it may have been in a hurry. “After” was spelled wrong. On the other hand, the auction house still listed Kenneth Garlick book as the reference. It would be interesting how many versions are mentioned.
Even with all the confusion, it is a portrait to remember. Rarely do you have the four ingredients for an important historical portrait: a well-known painter, a prominent sitter, an exemplary execution and perhaps equally important if not more, a beautiful or handsome face. This work has it all.
On Jan 11, after nearly four minutes vigorous bidding (46 bids), the painting sold for $84,700 (including the buyers premium). At least two people love it!