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100 years of English beauty defined by four artist muses

How portraits by Reynolds, Rossetti, Leighton and Freud — all offered in the Defining British Art sale on 30 June — reflect Keats’ sentiment: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’

Infatuation with arresting beauty has always compelled artists to produce masterpieces, and four superb works inspire Christie’s celebratory sale, Defining British Art, to be held in London on 30 June.

‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, wrote John Keats in Endymion: A Poetic Romance, his words echoing through the centuries and rippling through the world of art.

‘As Keats described beauty so perfectly in his poetry, so generations of British painters have been entranced by the most beautiful women of their day,’ states Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President of Christie’s International. ‘These muses inspired many of our finest British artists to execute their greatest works. Unwittingly these muses have shaped the history of British painting from the beginnings of great English portraiture in the 18th century when Christie’s was founded.’


Never previously offered for sale, Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Lucy Long, Mrs. George Hardinge (1820) epitomises the concept of the ‘society beauty’, and is one of the finest works by the artist to come to the market in a generation. Lucy Long is seen gazing pensively sideways with an elegant demeanour, accompanied by her pet spaniel, and this portrait of her is a superb example of why Reynolds was regarded as the dominant artistic figure of the late 18th century. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length, circa 1870. Coloured chalks on light green paper. 19 3⁄4 x 15 7⁄8 in. (50.1 x 40.3 cm.) Estimate £300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length, circa 1870. Coloured chalks on light green paper. 19 3⁄4 x 15 7⁄8 in. (50.1 x 40.3 cm.) Estimate: £300,000-500,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

Dante Gabriel Rosettis pursuit a new aesthetic is evident in his depictions of his enigmatic muse, Jane Morris. As seen in Portrait of Jane Morris, bust-length (circa 1870), Morris’s appearance was strikingly at odds with conventional notions of feminine grace, yet Rossetti captured her with a tasteful and irresistible intensity to create a breathtaking portrait of his flawless lover.

Rossetti, surprisingly perhaps, inspired L.S. Lowry, the painter of northern industrial scenes. Lowry, a life-long bachelor, declared himself fascinated by Rossetti’s women, and formed a significant collection of them. This drawing was sold by Lowry’s heirs.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s flirtatious and alluring Pavonia portrays a very different kind of beauty — that of Roman model Anna Risi, known as La Nanna — and broke new ground when it was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1858. In contrast to the work of his contemporaries, Leighton captures a sensuality in the serene but confident sitter. 

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896), Pavonia, circa 1859. Oil on canvas. 20 ⅞ x 16 ⅓ in. (53 x 41.5 cm.) Estimate £1,500,000-2,500,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (1830-1896), Pavonia, circa 1859. Oil on canvas. 20 ⅞ x 16 ⅓ in. (53 x 41.5 cm.) Estimate: £1,500,000-2,500,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

Focusing on the physicality of his striking Mediterranean model, we are gripped by her exotic beauty, juxtaposed with the magnificent display of a peacock fan, a timeless symbol of vanity. Pavonia was selected as the cover for the Leighton retrospective at the Royal Academy in 1996, and the The Cult of Beauty show staged by the V&A in 2011. Over the years the work has become the defining image of British Aestheticism.

Lucian Freud, O.M., C.H. (1922-2011), A Girl (Pauline Tennant), circa 1945. Conté crayon and coloured chalk on greygreen paper. 17 3⁄4 x 15 3⁄4 in. (45 x 40 cm.) Estimate £2,000,000-3,000,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

Lucian Freud, O.M., C.H. (1922-2011), A Girl (Pauline Tennant), circa 1945. Conté crayon and coloured chalk on grey/green paper. 17 3⁄4 x 15 3⁄4 in. (45 x 40 cm.) Estimate: £2,000,000-3,000,000. This work is offered in the Defining British Art Evening Sale on 30 June at Christie’s London

The fourth ‘muse’ in the forthcoming evening sale is (A Girl) Pauline Tennant by Lucian Freud, a drawing that dates from the end of the Second World War and typifies his style at that time.

A Girl (Pauline Tennant) (circa 1945), conveys an obvious stillness in its depiction. Pauline Tennant, portrayed truthfully to her rather unconventional personality and described as ‘a true bohemian aristocrat’, appears carefully delineated upon a muted canvas but animated in both beauty and psyche.

These four portraits reveal a clear evolution of our concept of physical allure, while also illustrating Keats’ enduring sentiment. Contemporary beauties their subjects may have been. The timeless joy offered by their creators is beyond doubt.