Posted on: 15 July 2021

Enigmatic faces of the Interregnum

Christina Trevanion reflects on the sale of a rare 17th century painting which sold for more than a quarter of a million pounds.   

There are moments in an auctioneer’s life that ‘stick’, and recently, perched on top of a ladder, in a rather damp and tumbling down out-building, I had one of these.  For hanging high above me, was one of the most exquisite and unusual paintings, I have ever seen. 

Once we had managed to retrieve the painting from its vertiginous vantage point, it became clear just how important this painting was.

The painting, a double portrait dating to c.1650 was fascinating for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, it depicted a black woman from the Cromwellian period, dressed as a social equal to her counterpart, and secondly, because they are also shown wearing decorative patches on their faces, a curious feature that added a sense of real mystery to the work. The 2ft 1n x 2ft 6in (64 x 75cm) oil on canvas, had been in the collection of Lloyd Tyrell-Kenyon, 6th Baron Kenyon, who died in 2019 and had been kept at least for a century at Gredington, the family’s country seat which was demolished in 1980.

Not wanting to give away their secrets too easily, the painting, and its verse  ‘I black with white bespott y white with blacke this evil proceeds from thy proud hart then take her: Devill’, were a conundrum.  In order to unravel the puzzle they presented us with, my colleague Ashley Jones and I decided to split our research, Ashley took the history of black art, and I took costume design and face patches in the 17th century.  Every morning we would compare notes and try and piece together what we could interpret from this intriguing painting.  It was a fascinating process and what we gleaned was a tangle of Cromwellian law and propaganda in 17th century England.

The depiction of face patches in the painting was quite extraordinary, face patches have been used since ancient times for purely practical purposes to cover up scars and blemishes. However, in the mid 17th century some men were outraged by the way women dressed and wore make up.  In 1650 parliament debated whether to pass an act against ‘The vice of painting and wearing black patches, and immodest dress of women’, the bill did not make it to law but had some popular support. The Puritan obsession with sexual promiscuity was also reflected in a crackdown of all forms of ‘nightwalking’ aimed at removing prostitutes from the streets. The implication was that a ‘patched woman’ had something to hide, which may have been as innocent as a birthmark or small-pox scar, but she could also be hiding something much more sinister, perhaps a syphilis scar or other sexually transmitted diseases. The association of patches with sexual immorality, deceit and aristocratic affectation was everything Cromwell and his Puritan government sought to outlaw.

The painting was entered into our Fine Art auction in June 2021, and following extensive pre-sale publicity, we saw ferocious interest in the painting from across the globe, from private buyers in America to the UK, the international fine art market elite was fighting to have the opportunity to acquire this historic portrait.  Among the underbidders was London dealer Philip Mould who stated ‘You could well imagine how museums on both sides of the Atlantic would desire such an image, with present needs to broaden subject matter and diversity in public collections’.  

After an intense bidding battle between telephone and online bidders the painting finally sold to a UK bidder for over a quarter of a million pounds (£220,000 plus buyers premium).

 To say that I was utterly delighted with the result that we achieved for this incredibly important work of art is a huge understatement.  It has been incredibly special to be a very small part of this paintings journey and I feel sure that our re-discovery of this fundamentally historically important painting will contribute to the re-writing of art history.

To view the full results of the June Fine Art & Antiques Auction click here.