17th-century ‘miniature adult’ portrait in sale

A forgotten 400-year-old portrait of a ‘miniature adult’ in an elaborate full-length gown has been discovered hidden away in a Surrey cottage.

The painting, dated 1626, was spotted hanging behind a door that was almost always left open in a home crammed with collectibles by antiques expert Chris Kirkham – and he immediately knew it was potentially worth tens of thousands of pounds.

The portrait of a small girl in 1626 dressed in adult attire
The portrait of a small girl in 1626 dressed in adult attire – credit Hansons

Chris, associate director at Hansons London, said: “I was surprised to find such a compelling portrait hidden away. However, I discovered there was a reason for it. The keen collector who acquired it had downsized some years before and brought all of his much-loved antiques with him.

“His collection included several paintings which were hung on much smaller walls than they had originally been intended for. He struggled for display space and this little girl in all her finery got tucked away behind a door. Sadly, the collector passed away and this  centuries-old work was forgotten.

“The vendor’s late father had an intellectual appreciation of antiques. When she showed me around the house to assess some of his acquisitions she admitted she’d forgotten about the portrait. It was blocked from view because the door was almost always left open. I just happened to move it and thank goodness I did.  Such is its importance this portrait will go to auction in January with a guide price of £18,000-£20,000.”

The wealthy child on the 396-year-old painting looks around 18 months to two years old, barely old enough to walk,  and yet she wears lavish formal attire. Such is the grandeur of her outfit she resembles a miniature adult, according to Chris.

She stands proudly in a richly embroidered black and cream dress. It has exquisite detailing and a stiff wide collar edged in lace. A matching hat fits snugly  on her head though a small lock of blonde hair escapes at the front.

Helen Smith, from Hansons, with the 17th-century portrait of a young girl dressed as an adult
Helen Smith, from Hansons, with the portrait – credit Mark Laban Hansons

More adornments come courtesy of a necklace of red beads bearing a large cross and pearl and matching beads around her wrists. Her expensive outfit is also enhanced by a  silver chain across her body which leads to a beaked object clasped in her hand.

The seller said: “This discovery is all credit to my father. He was an eccentric and a collector of all types of  antiques and curios. He had a really good eye for unusual objects and art. It offered him  a hobby away from his working life as a farmer.

“We think he may have purchased the painting at auction many years ago but can’t be sure. It’s been enjoyed and displayed in our family home for many years. Sadly, we have lost  my father and the time has to come to part with a few items.”

The portrait bears the name  Adriaen Verkins, possibly Dutch, and is dated 1626 when Charles I (1600 – 1649) was king of England, Scotland and Ireland. He  lavished money on the arts and invited artists Van Dyck and Rubens to work in England.

Belgian Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was a Brabantian Flemish Baroque artist who became the leading court painter in England.  He was renowned for his paintings of royals and members of noble families including their children.

Fellow Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), from the Netherlands, was also renowned for portraits of royalty. He is considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition.

Chris said: “It is likely their work influenced the Baroque portrait we have uncovered. Royalty dictate trends and a wealthy family would have commissioned this painting to emulate the grand portraits of the time. The child’s ornate outfit empathises their wealth and status.”

Charles Hanson, owner of Hansons London, said: “It is remarkable what we find hidden away in homes  –  often forgotten and, in this case, behind a door. Collectors fill their homes with so many wonderful items over the course of decades, it is easy to lose sight of which ones may be of special significance.

“When you look into this little girl’s eyes you are swept back to the early 17th century. Fashions of the time  for the rich – the poor were in rags –  were showy  and laden with ornamentation. Jewellery, lace and multiple contrasting fabrics displayed wealth. This portrait is a remarkable find. It is like a time capsule offering an insight into the life  of a wealthy child, bedecked in all her finery, centuries ago.”