Page last updated at 07:38 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Mystery of 'enigmatic' portrait

Little is known about Augustus John's lover and model Jean Butler

An art gallery is trying to identify the subject of a rare portrait by renowned Welsh artist Augustus John, due for auction later this month.

The 1949 painting, dedicated to its sitter, Jean Butler, goes on show later at Oriel Washington Gallery, Penarth.

Other than John's description of her as "my love", little has been discovered about the mysterious brunette.

The painting, never before shown in Wales, is expected to sell for up to 30,000.

Auction co-ordinator Dan Hall said the portrait has been put up for sale by a lady now living in Wales who bought it from an art consultant in 1983.

"We know that it has never been shown in Wales and hasn't seen the light of day anywhere for 50 years.

"On the back of the painting is a dedication which reads 'To my love. The head and shoulders of Jean Butler. 1949'.

We suspect it might have been a fling. He was obviously very fond of the sitter
Auction co-ordinator Dan Hall

"Out of interest we began looking into the identity of the sitter, as most of the people Augustus John painted were celebrities of the time or literary figures, but we could not find anything on her, other than her name.

"We've exhausted all avenues and are hoping the public can help us identify her."

Mr Hall described the portrait as "an enigmatic piece" and said it was very unusual for so little to be known about one of John's sitters.

"John's portraits were usually commissioned works. It was very unusual for him to do one 'on the hop' and give it to the sitter in this way.

"We suspect it might have been a fling. He was obviously very fond of the sitter. You can get that from the painting. It's a very endearing portrait.

Augustus John
Augustus John, pictured a couple of years before his death in 1961

"John would have been living in Wales at the time he painted it. And we know he was in the company of various Gypsy women at that time."

The gallery has discovered that Jean Butler kept her portrait until it was sold to the consultant.

Mr Hall added: "It will be interesting to see what transpires when the portrait goes on view. If we do receive more information about Jean Butler it could well drive up the price."

Born in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, in 1878, Augustus John was regarded as the most famous British artist of the early 1900s. He died in 1961.

The sale also includes works by leading international artists displayed at the Washington Gallery. The Bloomsbury Group (an art movement) from London have a presence in the auction with figures such as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

More than 100 works of art will be sold throughout the silent auction period which ends on 13 November.

Other lots include original engravings by William Hogarth, lithographs by Henry Moore and paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant from the Bloomsbury Group.

Also up for sale will be more contemporary works by leading figures including the late Sir Kyffin Williams.

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