ONE OF the most famous - one might almost say infamous - paintings of the 18th century is coming up for sale at Sotheby's on Wednesday, a half-length Gainsborough portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wearing a huge hat with an ostrich feather.
The portrait made the second highest price ever recorded for a painting at Christie's in 1876, when Agnew's, the Bond Street dealers, bought it for pounds 10,605 - Holman Hunt's Shadow of the Cross had sold for pounds 11,000 two years before. It was stolen from Agnew's window three days later and, despite ransom demands, accompanied by strips cut from the painting, Agnew's did not get it back until 1901 - when it was sold to th American millionaire J Pierpont Morgan for pounds 32,000 despite the damage. It has been sent for sale by Morgan's granddaughter.
In its day the Gainsborough was as much of a saleroom sensation as the Van Gogh portrait of Dr Gachet for which Ryoei Saito paid pounds 43.1m in May 1990 - still the highest price on record for any work of art. According to contemporary accounts of the 1876 sale, the whole of King Street, where Christie's was and is located, was blocked with carriages which overflowed into St James's Square. Sotheby's is modestly estimating that Georgiana will sell for between pounds 200,000 and pounds 300,000 this time.
Her return to auction underlines the extent to which 18th-century British pictures, once the most glamorous and fashionable works money could buy, are now a modestly priced backwater. Sotheby's has a sale called "British Paintings 1500-1850" next Wednesday while Christie's offers "British Pictures" on Thursday. Both contain some beautiful paintings, accessibly stimated. There are four distinct types of picture on offer; portraits, sporting paintings, marine views and landscapes - a very succinct summary of our aristocratic ancestors' interests in life. Next to their relations, they loved their horses - there are hunting and racing pictures; as islanders, they were addicted to the sea and proud of Britain's maritime supremacy; they lived much of the year in the country and loved the British landscape.
Today the market for these works is mainly limited to British and American buyers - we have never been able to persuade Continentals that the British knew how to paint.
The Americans tend to buy the most expensive examples that come on the market while the British lap up the rest. Prices for early British pictures have been very weak since the art market crash of 1990, though there have been signs of recovery in the past six months.
In his historical analysis of the picture market, The Economics of Taste, the late Gerald Reitlinger pointed out tat British 18th-century portraits were the most fashionable and expensive paintings in the world from the 1850s to the 1930s. The Depression followed by war killed off the market and in the post-war years the French Impressionists and followers have become the most fashionable and expensive artists.
Sotheby's is probably right to place a conservative estimate on Georgiana. Her price in 1876 was, according to Reitlinger, an aberration, based largely on the romantic fame of the Duchess herself - for Georgiana was the Princess Di of her day. She too was the daughter of Earl Spencer, was brought up at Althorp and was married at 17 to the Duke of Devonshire; she became the darling of society and was the chief supporter of the great Whig politician of the day, Charles James Fox.
While the Earl of Dudley and Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild competed with Agnew's for possession of the portrait in 1876, knowledgeable connoisseurs doubted the attribution to Gainsborough and suggested that it was a copy ofthe full-length one at Althorp - now in the National Gallery, Washington - which had been cut down. According to Reitlinger it "had been bought in the 1850s from a picture restorer, named Bentley, for pounds 63. …