A Rare Painting by Joan Carlile, One of England’s First Female Portrait Painters, Is Going to Auction in London

The work is expected to fetch upwards of $60,000.

Dreweatts Auction House in London will offer a work by Joan Carlile, widely believed to be the first female portrait painter active in Britain during the 17th century, at its Old Master, British, and European art sale on May 26. 

The oil painting, titled Portrait of Anne, Philadelphia and Thomas Wharton, later 5th Lord Warton, is expected to fetch between £30,000-£50,000 ($38,000-$63,000).

It depicts members of the Wharton family adorned in lush fabrics done in Carlile’s typical style. The drapery of the silk folds on the child’s clothing, flanked by her two siblings, each positioned in front of a classical column with a red velvet curtain, reflect what was then the fashionable attire of 17th-century British gentry. 

In the mid-17th century, however, it was practically impossible for a woman to gain access as a portrait painter of English high society.

Carlile was different. Her work was rediscovered, in part, thanks to good record keeping. In a 1658 list of noteworthy English artists, her name is mentioned as one of only four women oil painters. 

As one of the earliest known female society portraitists in England, Carlile’s works are also held in the public collections of the Tate Britain, Ham House, Surrey, and the National Portrait Gallery, London. 

Her pioneering style eventually led to her rediscovery, known mostly for small-scale portraits of female figures, with the work offered tomorrow thought to be one of her largest. 

In 2016, Tate Britain acquired Carlile’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady after British TV art historian Bendor Grosvenor identified it as the artist’s. He purchased it from Woolley and Wallis auction house in Salisbury in December 2014 for £4,200 ($5,452), later flipping it to the Tate for £35,000 ($45,438). 

Speaking at the time, Tabitha Barber, a curator of British art at Tate, told the BBC, “it’s a built-in prejudice. You begin to think that great artists are male artists. We have a big strategy in trying to make women more visible on our walls.”

It is believed that only 10 of Carlile’s portraits survive, including one of Sir Thomas Browne and Lady Dorothy Browne, held at London’s National Portrait Gallery.

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