Why would you buy a portrait of someone you didn’t know

Why would you buy a portrait of someone you didn’t know?

Specialist Melissa van Vliet answers this and other key questions about 18th-century portraiture

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  • Why did people paint portraits?

In the 18th century, England’s upper classes entered a new era of prosperity. No longer the preserve of royalty, commissioned portraits — of oneself or one’s ancestors — became a coveted symbol of wealth and status.

The portraits took pride of place in the home, or were given to others as gifts. This small portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, for example, is thought to have been commissioned by Lord Edgecumbe as a gift for his lover. A much larger version was destroyed in the Second World War.

As with the selfie today, portraits were also a chance for more self-conscious sitters to be depicted in the latest fashions. The woman depicted in the portrait attributed to James Wills (below right), wears girandole earrings typical of the period, while, in her portrait by Gainsborough (below left), Lady Anne Furye wears a must-have sack-back gown. 

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  • Why would I buy a picture of someone I didn’t know?

Portraits are a slice of history. If you are able to identify the sitter, research or further reading can bring their story to life — it’s very different, for example, to an image of an isolated landscape.

With Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lord Edgecumbe (shown above), a little research offers an insight not only into Edgecumbe’s relationship with his lover, but the connection between painter and sitter: Reynolds and Edgecumbe were childhood friends, and the sitter’s father was one of the artist’s earliest patrons.

For some, portraits are simply beautiful decorative pieces — but when you begin to discover the personal stories around the works, they become far more engaging.

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  • How can you identify an unknown sitter?

If you are unable to identify a portrait’s subject, the work itself can often provide clues: look for plaques or labels on the reverse, or along the frame, which might give a name or part of a name.

Last year, we sold a portrait by George Romney that featured the artist’s own handwriting on a label attached to the stretcher — the wood behind the canvas. Presumed to be by Romney’s hand, the text gave the name of the sitter, and the dates of each sitting. 

George Romney (Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire 1734-1802 Kendal, Cumbria), Portrait of John Sparling (d. 1778), half-length, in a black coat. Oil on canvas. 36¼ x 28¼ in (92.2 x 71.6 cm). Sold for £7,500 on 30 April 2015 at Christie’s in London
George Romney (Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire 1734-1802 Kendal, Cumbria), Portrait of John Sparling (d. 1778), half-length, in a black coat. Oil on canvas. 36¼ x 28¼ in (92.2 x 71.6 cm). Sold for £7,500 on 30 April 2015 at Christie’s in London

Documents indicating the work’s provenance can also reveal the name of the subject, and a preliminary internet search will occasionally bring up the names of the most well-known sitters — although the search may also result in misleading information. 

One of the most useful resources is the Heinz Archive and Library, attached to London’s National Portrait Gallery, which offers a free enquiry service (in person or by email). It has a vast archive of portraits, and searching a single name can often pull up your portrait, or other images of the same sitter. Comparing facial features can help to confirm the subject's identity.

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  • Are some sitters harder to identify than others?

If you have no leads, and the subject doesn’t appear in other works, they can be very difficult to identify. The challenge can be even greater with artists such as Peter Lely, who devised compositional types that he would re-use — with similar poses, hairstyles or dresses sometimes appearing across portraits. 

Thus Mrs Ann Johnson might look very like Miss Ellen Smith, if there is little to differentiate their style, and few other known portraits of either.

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  • Does the subject’s status add value?

A well-known sitter can certainly add value to the picture, but there are other factors to consider. It’s important to ask whether the work is original or a copy, and how many portraits of the sitter there are: William Beechey’s portrait of King George III, for example, depicts a very famous sitter, but there are many other famous portraits of King George.

Besides the sitter’s identity, it’s also important to assess the condition and quality of the painting: a painting of first-class quality in flawless condition is always more sought-after.

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  • Does it matter if my portrait is a study?

If you can prove a portrait is a study for a much larger work, it can increase its value — whether it is a smaller version of a much larger work, or depicts one person from a much larger composition.

Preparatory drawings can also offer a fantastic insight into provenance. In our October sale, we sold an oil painting by John Downman that has a corresponding preparatory drawing in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (below) — confirming beyond doubt the identity of the artist and sitter, and providing more information about the work.




John Downman, A.R.A. (Ruabon, North Wales 1750-1824 Wrexham), Portrait of Letitia Anna Philippa Pervis, bust-length, in a white dress. Signed and dated J.Downman  Pinxit()  1778 (lower left). Oil on copper, oval. 9 x 7 ½ in (23 x 19 cm). Sold for £42,500 on 29 October 2015 at Christie’s in London
John Downman, A.R.A. (Ruabon, North Wales 1750-1824 Wrexham), Portrait of Letitia Anna Philippa Pervis, bust-length, in a white dress. Signed and dated 'J.Downman / Pinxit(?) / 1778' (lower left). Oil on copper, oval. 9 x 7 ½ in (23 x 19 cm). Sold for £42,500 on 29 October 2015 at Christie’s in London
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  • Who were the leading portrait artists in the 18th century?

In the latter half of the 18th century Joshua Reynolds became England’s leading portraitist, his style influenced by the work of artists including RubensRembrandt and Van Dyck. He was celebrated for creating varied works that bestowed his sitters with an air of graceful refinement.  

Other names to look out for include George Romney and Thomas Gainsborough, both among the most sought-after and celebrated portrait artists of their time, and Thomas Lawrence, renowned for his bold use of colour and technical innovation.