Sister work to Tyneside top painting to be sold

A second version of Newcastle Laing Art Gallery star painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, set to fetch £5m

The painted wall on the side of the Laing Art Gallery - Isabella and the pot of basil
The painted wall on the side of the Laing Art Gallery - Isabella and the pot of basil

A smaller version of one of the North East’s most popular paintings is set to fetch between £5m and £8m at auction in London.

William Holman Hunt, a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, painted the two versions of Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

The bigger painting, completed in 1867, is in the collection of the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle. A giant rendition of the painting has decorated the outside wall of the Laing, facing John Dobson Street, for the last 20 years after it was chosen as one of three to represent works from the gallery.

Now the smaller version, depicting the tragic heroine of John Keats’s poem, will be sold at Christie’s on June 17 by the Delaware Art Museum in the United States.

It is one of the very few works by Holman Hunt likely to come for public sale and has raised speculation over the value of the Newcastle painting.

An estimation of the value of art objects valued at £10,000 or more in the collection of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums (TWAM) is £117m.

Newcastle has 717 art objects in this category, valued at £103m, Gateshead has 166 worth £13m, and South Tyneside 13 at £49,000.

“It is a valuable collection but it is our policy not to comment on the value of individual paintings,” said TWAM director Iain Watson.

Only 18% of the TWAM collection has been purchased - the rest has come from donations or bequests.

That was what the Laing Art Gallery had to rely on when it opened without a collection in 1904 as a gift to the city by Alexander Laing to mark his 50 years in the wine and spirits business in Newcastle.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil
Isabella and the Pot of Basil

The large Isabella painting had been bought by Tynemouth shipping owner James Hall, who was also responsible for the establishment of the Wellesley training ship for destitute boys on the Tyne.

His descendant, Dr Winifred Hall, donated the painting to the gallery in 1952.

“It is a fabulous work of art and it was an incredibly generous donation,” said Mr Watson.

“It is a very popular painting and people love it. For a lot of people it symbolises the Laing Art Gallery.”

The Delaware museum acquired its Holman Hunt in 1947.

Holman Hunt was working on two versions of this subject in the year following his wife’s untimely death soon after the birth of their son, while they were in Florence in Italy.

Last year the Laing Art Gallery welcomed the painting back after a year away.

It left Newcastle to be part of the popular exhibition “Pre-Raphaelites - Victorian Avant-Garde” at Tate Britain in London and Washington’s National Gallery in the United States.

Julie Milne, chief curator at the Laing Art Gallery, said: “We are lucky to have this wonderful painting in the collection. It’s one of the best loved works here and many people visit the gallery especially to see it.”

The painting is based on verses from John Keats’s 19th Century poem, Isabella, a re-interpretation of a medieval story.

The story goes that Isabella fell in love with Lorenzo, one of her brothers’ employees. When her brothers find out, they murder Lorenzo and bury his body but his ghost informs Isabella in a dream. She exhumes his body and buries the head in a pot of basil which she tends obsessively, while pining away.


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