Can you help solve the mystery of George Eliot portrait sold in Thame?

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans - George Eliot. Picture: Sim Fine Art
Portrait of Mary Ann Evans - George Eliot. Picture: Sim Fine Art

People in Thame may hold the key to solving a mystery surrounding a portrait of a famous author.

An art dealer is appealing for help in tracing the early history of a picture dating from the 1840s of George Eliot, who wrote the classics Middlemarch and Mill On The Floss.

Andrew Sim says experts believe the pastel sketch of Eliot - real name Mary Ann Evans - is authentic and created years before she became famous for her writing.

Mr Sim bought the picture for £50 at an auction in South Oxfordshire last year and, after researching its importance, traced it back to a street market in Thame where it had been bought 18 months earlier.

But he would like to know the early history of the work, such as where Mary Ann sat for the portrait, and possibly who created it.

He said: “The stallholder can’t remember where he bought it from. The chances are that it came from a local source and had been sitting on someone’s wall for years.”

The chalk pastel of Mary Ann is similar to a drawing done of Eliot aged 28, made by a friend who traced her shadowed profile, a technique popular with amateur artists. It reveals a long nose, generous mouth and jutting jaw.

Andrew has been told the most probable story of his portrait is that it is the work of a nameless young picture restorer with whom the young Mary Ann Evans – still years away from becoming George Eliot – is known to have fallen briefly in love with in 1845.

Andrew said: “Experts agree that it is her. But where has the picture been since it was painted in 1845?”

“I think the idea that an icon of English literature could have been sitting anonymously on a Thame living room wall is quite a remarkable one!”

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name of George Eliot to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels. She was born in 1819 in Warwickshire, but when her mother died in 1836, Mary Anne left school to help run her father’s household. In 1841, she moved with her father to Coventry and lived with him until his death in 1849. Among her many famous works, she wrote Middlemarch in 1872. She later lived in London and died in 1880.

If you can help with any information, contact Mr Sim at simfineart@btinternet.com