Rare early likeness of Jonathan Swift sells for £81,250

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A painting thought to be the earliest likeness of Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift has sold for more than £81,000 at auction, well above its estimated price.

Swift is believed to be only 16 years old and a student at Dublin College in the portrait, which is attributed to the Irish artist Thomas Pooley (1646–1723).

The painting sold for £81,250, including buyer’s premium, when it went under the hammer in an online auction by fine art auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

Thought to have been painted around 1682, it had come to auction for the first time in 200 years and was bought by an anonymous private collector.

Jonathan Swift portrait auction
The painting drifted in and out of public view (Alex Robson/Lyon & Turnbull/PA)

The painting had been estimated to fetch between £30,000 and £50,000.

There are few images of the celebrated Anglo-Irish author (1667–1745), whose works include An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity (1708) and A Modest Proposal (1729).

The work was acquired by Thomas Percy, Bishop of Dromore, County Down, in 1801, who recorded it as “a small portrait of Dean Swift”.

First exhibited at South Kensington in 1867, it then drifted in and out of public view for the next hundred years.

In 1898 Sir Leslie Stephen, writing in the Dictionary of National Biography, declared “the present whereabouts of this portrait is unknown”.

It reappeared around 1967 in the collection of a descendant of Thomas Percy and at this time it came to the attention of Swift scholars and was attributed to Pooley.

The artist painted many high society figures in Ireland during the second half of the seventeenth century and at the start of eighteenth century, contributing to the theory that Swift was the illegitimate son of his benefactor, Sir John Temple (1600-1677).

It was shown in an exhibition at the National Library of Ireland in 1999.

Nick Curnow, head of fine art at Lyon & Turnbull, said: “Given the very human desire to put a face to a name, combined with Jonathan Swift’s status in the canon of world literature, there was international interest in this rare portrait.

“Auctions are always thrilling, particularly now that bidders can join us live from anywhere in the world. In this instance we were really delighted that such a remarkable work achieved more than double the estimated price – a superb result!”

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