George Romney 18th-century prison sketch brought $65K at Cheffins

George Romney, 'John Howard Visiting a Prison,' which sold for £42,000 ($52,540 or $65,410 with buyer’s premium) at Cheffins.

CAMBRIDGE, U.K. – The Fine Sale, held at Cheffins on December 6-7, was led by an 18th-century pen and ink wash on paper by George Romney (1734-1802) that told an extraordinary story. The title of this work, John Howard Visiting a Prison, gives a clue as to its 21st-century appeal.

The drawing is one of a series on the subject of John Howard (1726-1790), a social reformer who carried out inspections of prisons and lazarettos, or plague hospitals, throughout Britain and Europe from 1773. He had personally experienced captivity in 1756, having happened to be onboard a ship taken by a French privateer where all the passengers and crew were imprisoned in dreadful conditions.

Campaigning for the humane treatment of prison inmates, in 1777 he published his first report, The State of Prisons in England and Wales. Romney was inspired by Howard’s work and planned to paint two or three large pictures of prison scenes. The finished works never materialized, and instead, Romney captured the subject in a series of studies and sketches depicting figures in dungeon-like prisons. It has been suggested that the crouching figure at the back of this particular 21 by 12in (52 by 29cm) scene bears some resemblance to Romney himself.

According to a label on the reverse, it was formerly in the collection of the South African businessman and art-collector Alfred de Pass (1861-1952) and was later sold though the London dealership Agnew’s as part of an exhibition of French and English drawings in 1966.

Prices for Romney portraits have fallen significantly since then, but an image such as this, which seemingly oozes social history, is much more attuned to today’s collecting taste. Estimated at £4,000-£6,000 ($5,000-$7,500), it hammered for £42,000 ($52,540 or $65,410 with buyer’s premium).

Posting a yet more marked improvement on its expectations was a group of four plumbago on vellum portrait miniatures which, estimated at £600-£800 ($750-$1,000), hammered for £40,000 ($50,040 or $62,300 with buyer’s premium). Inscribed with the sitters’ identities and ages to the reverse, they depict Mary Orlebar (1730-1821), Richard Orlebar (1736-1803) and Constantia Orlebar (1739-1808) together with another miniature said to show Mary Orlebar’s friend, Miss Hacks. One was dated 1744.

The Orlebar family lived at Hinwick House on the Bedfordshire-Northamptonshire border in England in a splendid Queen Anne country house built in 1709-14 by Richard Orlebar (1671-1733) that remained in the family until 1995. At the death of their father John Orlebar (1697-1765), the unmarried sisters Mary (1730-1821) and Constantia (1739-1808), along with Elizabeth (1732-1810) who is not depicted here, moved to Ecton, Northamptonshire, England. The sisters had an active interest in literary matters and left behind many private writings, including Mary’s travel diaries and poems, and perhaps most notably Constantia’s Weather Book, an important chronicle in which she recorded the daily weather from 1786 until her death. It was the subject of an article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1955.

Although unsigned, these works are very much in the style of James Ferguson (1710-1776). He is best known today as a scientist who, despite never receiving formal training, became famed for his traveling lectures and easy-to-understand works on the basics of astronomy, mechanics and electricity. However, being from a humble background, he made his living as a portrait painter, working predominantly in India ink.

Single images tend to bring modest sums — a large number of Ferguson portraits were sold by Bonhams Edinburgh in 2021 in groups of four and five for around £1,000-£2,000 ($1,250-$2,500) — but it was the survival of these works as a family group that made them a main attraction. All the images were in good condition, with some small losses to the frames.

At a Sworders’ sale in December 2022, a similar family group of five plumbago miniatures by Ferguson sold well above its estimate at £17,000 ($21,260).

Colonial Williamsburg wins miniature portrait of Chickasaw brave at Case auction

Miniature portrait of a Chickasaw brave known as Kinheche, painted in 1830, $60,000
Miniature portrait of a Chickasaw brave known as Kinheche, painted in 1830, $60,000
Miniature portrait of a Chickasaw brave known as Kinheche, painted in 1830, $60,000

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A Leroy Neiman party scene and an early miniature portrait of a Chickasaw brave were the most celebrated lots at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals‘ Summer Auction, held July 9-10. A total of 95% of the lots sold, and the sale total tallied 17% above the high estimate.

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Ohio museum acquires important 17th-century portrait miniature

Portrait of Zaga Christ (Sagga Krestos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.
Portrait of Zaga Christ (Ṣägga Krǝstos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.
Portrait of Zaga Christ (Sagga Krestos), 1635, Giovanna Garzoni, (Italian, 1600-1670). Watercolor and bodycolor on vellum mounted on card; silver frame is later. Museum Friends Fund. Courtesy of Phillip Mould and Company, London.

OBERLIN, Ohio – The Allen Memorial Art Museum’s gallery of 17th- and 18th-century European art has been reimagined to reveal global stories of encounter and exchange. Central to the new installation is a significant acquisition: a portrait of the Ethiopian traveler Zaga Christ by the Italian artist Giovanna Garzoni. Made in 1635, when the two met at the court of the Duke of Savoy in Turin, Italy, Portrait of Zaga Christ is the earliest known European portrait miniature to depict a Black sitter.

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