Dress and Textiles, North West England: Artists and Subjects, Portraits: British 18th C 40 Is this possibly a painting by Allan Ramsay?

Portrait of an Unknown Lady
Topic: Artist

This portrait, with its expert handling of fabric and unusually sensitive face, cries out for a proper attribution. I am tempted to think of Allan Ramsay, as the face seems too fine for someone like Joseph Highmore. The listed date for the picture is 1750.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

40 comments

The Collection has commented: ‘The painting was originally attributed to Christopher Steele, however this seems to have been decided against. There is a suggestion of William Verelst but this hasn't been confirmed. Unfortunately, there isn't any more information on the back, it’s already been recorded. The work is dated 1750 in written records, but it is unclear how this date was identified. Our object files do not confirm the date of 1750, but it is possible that this is labelled on the reverse of the work which we were not able to check today. The work was purchased from a private collector in 1967 who believed that this painting was local to the Kendal area, having previously been auctioned in Ulverston. It was speculated to have been painted by Christopher Steele. A former director of Abbot Hall reached out to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at The University of Birmingham prior to purchasing to ascertain whether this was plausible, and their reply read: 'I don't think Steele is impossible. It isn't to my eye quite plainly by him - but it certainly isn't obviously by someone else and the location and style amount to quite a good argument.'

M M Gilchrist,

I'd say strong possibility of Ramsay. Not just composition and the face, but also the handling of the white silk on the dress.

Jacinto Regalado,

If the 1750 date is firmly established, rather than an estimate, then Christopher Steele (born 1733) would be rather too young to have painted this, but otherwise he is not out of the question, at least based on some of his known work (see below):

https://bit.ly/3u5KHb3

Jacinto Regalado,

As for William/Willem Verelst, that is possible, but this might be too fine for him, and I tend to think it is. Thomas Hudson is another possibility, but I think he tended to use an oval framing device for half-length portraits, though not always.

Having organized an exhibition on Thomas Hudson many years ago and having staged an exhibition on Allan Ramsay, almost as many years ago, I can say with confidence that this fine work is by neither of these artists. I'll give thought to whom the artist might be. Tentatively, I am wondering if the portrait might date to the 1730s, on the basis of the foldover cut of the front of the dress and the placing at elbow height of the cross banding on the sleeves. That said, such a sleek white satin or silk is not altogether typical.

Martin Hopkinson,

A provincial artist, perhaps a late Hamlet Winstanley?

Jacinto Regalado,

Lou Taylor could help with dating based on dress.

Tamsyn Taylor,

I would go with the suggestion of Willem Verelst. His painting of satin was fine, and this garment appears to occur in a number of his works.

Martin Hopkinson,

At this date very often the costume was by a specialist drapery painter - a Lancashire artist is quite a possiblity for the head

Jacinto Regalado,

I considered the possibility of a drapery painter, but it would have been a first-rate one, meaning one working for someone like Ramsay or Hudson, not a provincial portraitist.

Jacinto Regalado,

Of course, if the picture is 1730s, that excludes Christopher Steele.

Jacinto Regalado,

Kitty Clive (c. 1740) by Willem Verelst:

https://bit.ly/3yyGOPe

However, here the satin is harsher, even metallic, and the face is also harsher or less sensitive, more mask-like.

Whaley Turco,

I am Looking at the Blouse which appears to be 19th century and the Way her Makeup is done and I see no lead just the natural look that came after the late 18th century. Are you sure that it doesn't say 1850. It doesn't look like a Ramsey or a Reynolds. Going to pass on Steele too. There are a lot of British Portrait Artists from the mid 19th century but very little of their work is online. Too sum things up, I have no idea.lol

Whaley Turco,

The More I Look at this painting the More I think something is really wrong. Here. If you just look at the blouse It screams 18th century. It is so very well painted, that you hardly notice the face. Except, Except, except the color (blouse)is off for that time period and so is the blouse. But the face is way off. The color is off as in she isn't wearing heavy white makeup. The attitude is very 20th century. It was cleaned after the acquisition which may account for the face color. But No cleaning would have Put that Cat Just ate the Canary look on her face. So here we have a well painted portrait. It just exudes 1930s melancholy. But somehow it is labeled 1750s. That means this portrait was painted when you had to be someone to have a portrait of this quality done. But No Name no Lady Somebody on the back no auction house stickers. 200 plus years since it was painted and not a peep. If you could see her hands they would probably be holding A John Player Special in a Cigarette Holder to the left and Martini to the right.
I suggest you have someone check the back for any clue. Plus Check the age of the Paint. I could be wrong but I think this is some sort of forgery. Not to resemble a work by a known artist. But to resemble work from a certain time period. To make someone think they might be getting an unknown undiscovered masterpiece. When was the great age of 18th century forgeries> 1890 - 1940..

On Art UK, under insription, it says "RESTORED AFTER PURCHASE: RET. AUG. 1971. ONCE THOUGHT TO BE BY CHRISTOPHER STEELE. SIGNED BOTTOM R.?"

Is there a blow up of the bottom right corner showing what was thought to be a possible signature?

One thing the blow up does show is the craquelure pattern, that is the cracking in the paint, in a pattern that seems to me typical of the early to mid 18th century.

Louis Musgrove,

There is another William Verelst-Lady at a piano-which has what appears to be the identical satin wrap around blouse as our sitter and Jacinto's 1736 Verelst. And Maria Verelst seems to be good at Satin as well. If genuine the Verelsts look to be in the running.

Jacinto Regalado,

Jacob, do you think it possible that this picture has been cut down?

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, from what I have seen of Maria Verelst, this is too fine for her.

Martin Hopkinson,

For Hamlet Winstanley see Kevin Littlewood, Warrington' s Hamlet, The Romney Society Transactions , 14,. 2009 [ I have not seen this yet]

Jacinto Regalado,

Martin, the problem (or my problem) with Winstanley is that many of his pictures are only "attributed to" him, so one cannot be certain of authorship. Apart from that, his female faces tend to be more generic or less subtle than ours, and the handling of satin not so accomplished.

Jacinto Regalado,

The next step, I think, is to narrow down the date based on dress, so Lou Taylor's help would be in order.

To my eye Jacinto's comparison to Willem Verelst's Portrait of a Lady with a Dove, signed and dated 1736, is compelling (link, 21 May, 20.36). The depiction of the cut of the dress at the shoulders is the same, as is the edging of the dress to either side of the neck. Further, this agrees with my dating of the dress to the 1730s (post, 21 May). There are differences in the tone of the two pictures, with the Portrait of a Lady with the Dove being in a higher key, although this may be down to the photography.

In my view, look no further, our picture is by Willem Verelst, dating to the 1730s.

The portrait is a standard English canvas size, 30 x 25 inches. While it is not impossible that it has been cut down, I think it is unlikely.

Jacinto Regalado,

Yes, I think an attribution to Willem Verelst is plausible. I was lucky to find that 1736 portrait, which is one of his better works, and this one, though less decorative, is finer still.

In Lakeland Arts Trust/Kendall Art Gallery comments on this suggestion, it would be interesting to hear the reason they bought this unknown lady by a (hitherto) unidentified artist. Just liking it as a 'fine thing' is not usually enough when making a museum purchase case.

Jacinto Regalado,

Pieter, it seems the museum thought the portrait was of a local lady and possibly by Christopher Steele, who had a Kendal connection.

Osmund Bullock,

Yes, the reason (such as it was) is given in David's opening comment above. Before buying the painting the Collection had (in ghastly modern parlance) "reached out" to the Barber Institute for their view on the possible attribution to Christopher Steele; the response received was lukewarm, to put it mildly, but they nevertheless went ahead with the purchase.

Perhaps it's not surprising. In 1971 the Abbot Hall Gallery had been open nearly a decade, and although they'd already bought their first local-interest Romney, they still had nothing by his first mentor - the Steeles that are there now all arrived in the 1980s. This deficiency doubtless led to some wishful thinking among the staff, and the inconvenient matter of the portrait's real likely date was glossed over. It's probably no coincidence that they plumped for a date of 1750 - it just happens to be the same year that Steele is thought to have established himself in Kendal after his return from Paris (and a failed attempt to set up a studio in York), and is thus the earliest plausible date for a local portrait by him.

Jacinto Regalado,

Well, looks like Abbot Hall didn't get a Steele here but did get a prime Willem Verelst, which should be pretty good consolation.

Jacinto Regalado,

Perhaps I am imagining it, but I see a similarity between the handling of the facial features in our picture and another portrait by Willem Verelst, linked below:

https://bit.ly/2S0MGAy

Jacinto Regalado,

I do not think so, Louis. The eyes are quite different, for one thing.

Louis Musgrove,

The face enlargement has a better colour scheme-almost looks like a different person !.

I have asked the Collection if they have any better images Bendor, could confirm reasons for purchase Pieter and it is possible to check the back of the canvas and take a picture of it.

Marcie Doran,

I have attached three composites that might help to pursuade others that an attribution to Willem Verelst is reasonable.

In order to compare the satin to works by Verelst, as noted by Tamsyn:

1. As noted by Jacinto (but I used a different source):
From a Proantic auction:
“Portrait Of A Lady With A Dove”
Dated 1736
Height 146cm, Width 120cm framed
https://tinyurl.com/yjf6ynt3

2. As noted by Louis:
From a Christie’s auction in 2016:
“Portrait of a lady, three-quarter-length, in a white silk dress, seated playing a clavichord”
signed and dated 'W:M Verelst / Pinxit 1740' (lower right)
127.5 x 103 cm
https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6030226

In order to compare the face to a work by Verelst, as noted by Jacinto:

“John Dean (d.1747), Shipwrecked Mariner”
H 148 x W 102 cm
https://bit.ly/2S0MGAy

Note this article about John Dean on the British Library’s website:
https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2020/08/john-dean-celebrity-shipwreck-survivor-of-the-1740s.html

“After their success at the King’s Bench in May 1743, the Company commissioned Willem Verelst on 16 June 1743 to paint not one, but three portraits of John Dean. Two of these portraits still exist, and show a happy, healthy man, respectfully dressed in smart working class attire, carrying a hat and a walking stick in one hand and a letter of reference in the other.”

I don’t think Jacinto was imagining the resemblance between this portrait and the portrait by Willem Verelst of John Dean. Perhaps the sitter in this portrait was John Dean’s wife.

Jacinto Regalado,

Thank you, Marcie. An attribution to Willem Verelst remains plausible and, in my opinion, reasonable, but maybe the collection will provide additional information for consideration.

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