'Playful' portrait expected to fetch pounds 1.2m

THE great-grandson of the artist William Holman Hunt is selling a portrait of his grandfather by the illustrious Pre-Raphaelite painter.

Master Hilary - The Tracer shows a boy, Hunt's second son, standing at a French window and tracing from an illustrated song sheet which he is pushing up against the glass. It has not been seen in public since 1969, when it was shown at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, in an exhibition devoted to Hunt (1827-1910), who with Millais and Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The portrait, given by Hunt to his son for his 21st birthday, has remained in the family since the day it was painted.

A Christie's estimate of pounds 800,000 to pounds 1.2m reflects the rarity of a major Hunt painting coming up for sale.

The boy is seen from the outside, looking in through the glass. It is a composition painted with such subtlety that the glass is not immediately visible. Through his clever play with reflection, the artist teases the viewer's eye: creeper crawling up the outside of the window is reflected in the glass, but is not immediately apparent; and a water-filled drinking-glass on the floor at the boy's feet is painted so that the viewer is looking at a glass through glass. The blanching of his palm and finger-tips pressing up against the glass is intensely realistic.

John Christian, consultant to Christie's Victorian Picture Department, said: 'This delight in spatial ambiguity is typical of Hunt, who explored comparable effects in such subject-pictures as The Awakening Conscience (1853-54, Tate Gallery) and The Lady of Shalott (versions 1850-1905 at Melbourne, Manchester and Hartford, Connecticut)'.

At its first exhibition, in 1887, some of the reviews were not particularly complimentary. But one reviewer, in the Athenaeum, wrote: 'The style of painting is most animated and healthy - indeed, almost worthy of the artist's best time.'

As with many pictures which he altered after their first exhibition, Master Hilary has signs of repainting. The stripes on the boy's knickerbockers, and the position of the cap in his pocket, were later additions done in a different hand, probably that of E R Hughes, Hunt's studio assistant. At its second exhibition, later that same year, the Birmingham Daily Post referred to 'marks of genius' in the picture, adding that 'there is no living painter who is more distinctive and individual than he'.

Christie's has negotiated the sale by private treaty of an early 17th-century embroidered jacket, together with a contemporary portrait of the owner wearing it, to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The portrait, dating from circa 1620, shows that the jacket, made between 1615 and 1620, has never been altered - making it one of the most important pieces of 17th- century English embroidery to have survived. It was sold on behalf of the executor of the estate of Mary, Viscountess Rothermere.

Sotheby's British paintings included a 1677 work depicting the presentation to Charles II of the first pineapple grown in England. The picture, by an anonymous artist, was sold on behalf of the Earl of Harlech for pounds 463,500, more than double the pounds 200,000 lower estimate. It was bought by Christopher Gibbs, the London dealer.

Bidding through much of the sale was relatively selective. Some 81 lots found buyers; 74 did not.

(Photograph omitted)

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