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Is it King James II? Mystery miniature up for auction in Hampstead

Debate over whether painting from 1680s is monarch could hinge on his shape of his distinctive nose

09 March, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

The painting is just three inches high

COULD this be the face of a man about to become the King of England – or is it a lesser-known aristocrat or well-heeled merchant, posing for a portrait miniature?

That is the mystery that surrounds a small painting that will go up for sale at Hampstead Auctions in a fortnight’s time. The painting, measuring just over three inches high, was handed to them by a seller who found it in a house clearance.

On the back it declares that the man posing in his favourite wig for is none other than “James, Duke of York”, who would go on to become King James II.

But, as auction house valuer Michael Prevezer reveals, the true identity of the man captured more than 200 years ago is in some doubt.

As Mr Prevezer was writing a description for the auction’s catalogue, he cross-checked the image with other paintings of the King – and noticed there was something not quite right .

Mr Prevezer added: “James the Second has a very distinctive nose.” Simply put, the gentleman in the picture may not be the monarch as his nose isn’t big enough.

Mr Prevezer said: “The other issue is the people of the time all wore long, flowing wigs and often they would look quite similar. Gentlemen of the upper classes could often look the same, and having a miniature done was popular among those who could afford them.”

The auctioneers know the painting must date from the 1680s, due to distinctive costume and hairstyles and the fact that the artist, Peter Cross, worked during that period.

It is in the catalogue for the sale on March 21 and is expected to fetch between £3,000 to £5,000.
Mr Prevezer said: “We found the artist’s initials on the back and looked around for miniature portraitists at the time. There were only a handful working.”

The auction house contacted the National Portrait Gallery, which has four watercolour images by Cross, who was the son of a freeman of the Drapers Company and won numerous commissions. In 1678 he was appointed “limner-in-ordinary” to the King – meaning he had a Royal warrant as a miniature painter. His distinctive monogrammed initials are clear – but who he may have painted continues to be a mystery.

Mr Prevezer added: “You will find that stories get passed down generations and it is not uncommon for people to say oh, that is great uncle James, but then it turns out to be someone completely different.”

And as for finding out who the man in the painting really is, it would take a work of a dedicated art detective, say the auction house. But regardless of whether this is a flattering portrait of a man who would be king – with his nose somewhat curtailed – the painting is valuable in its own right.

Mr Prevezer added: “They are very beautiful and not many come up for sale. It is by an important artist – but there are very few clues as to who the gentleman Cross painted is. It is, suffice to say, intriguing.”

 

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