Rare General James Wolfe portrait marches to auction, priced £120,000

A fine portrait of General James Wolfe set against the Plains of Abraham at Quebec, where he heroically lost his life in a battle against the French is expected to bring £80,000-120,000 when it is auctioned at Bonhams' Old Master Paintings sale on Wednesday, July 7.

William Pitt the Elder appointed Wolfe to lead the British assault on Quebec in 1759. The resulting Battle of the Plains of Abraham (or the Battle of Quebec) is one of the most celebrated events in British military history, and a pivotal victory in the Seven Years' War. 

The confrontation, which began on 13 September 1759, was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army, on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City. 

The culmination of a three-month siege by the British, the British troops commanded by General James Wolfe successfully resisted the column advance of French troops. The General led his troops up precipitous wooded cliffs with their guns at night, so the French awoke to be confronted by the British on the plains in front of Quebec. 

Wolfe was mortally wounded during the battle and died on the field, yet it proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain. 

The portrait of General James Wolfe, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Wolfe was renowned by his troops for being demanding on himself and them. His last victory earned him posthumous fame, most notably celebrated in Benjamin West's epic canvas of 1771, The Death of General Wolfe, which became one of the most frequently reprinted images of the period, selling thousands of engravings.

At this time Wolfe's heroic reputation was second to none until Nelson's equally pyrrhic victory at Trafalgar 46 years later.

According to family tradition the posthumous portrait is by Sir Joshua Reynolds, but although it shares similarities of style with him it is now attributed to the Circle of Joseph Highmore. 

Highmore was a British artist known for his portraits and historical paintings, and this work resembles a portrait he painted of Wolfe which is in the National Archives of Canada. Of the Highmore portraits this is the only one left in private hands.

"Among my early schoolboy memories is being taught about Wolfe's celebrated victory at Quebec," enthused Andrew Mackenzie, Director of Old Master Paintings.

"Rarely does one have the opportunity to sell a major portrait of such a momentous historical figure," he said of the museum-quality work.

In other news, Sotheby's will be holding its own sale of collectible Old Masters works in Amsterdam, later today. Prominent and rare works available to buy in the auction will include The Battle of Lepanto, painted by the Flemish Baroque artist Andries van Eertvelt.


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