Books and Manuscripts: 19th and 20th Century

Books and Manuscripts: 19th and 20th Century

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 47. George Barker, attrib. | Portrait believed to be of George Eliot, [1845].

George Barker, attrib. | Portrait believed to be of George Eliot, [1845]

Lot Closed

July 20, 01:46 PM GMT


30,000 - 50,000 GBP

Lot Details


George Barker, Jr (attrib.)

Portrait, believed to depict George Eliot

half-length, facing left, depicting her in informal dress, seated with a book lying open beside her, in black and coloured chalks heightened in white on wove paper, 508 x 432mm, mounted on card, framed and glazed (frame 630 x 580mm), [1845], slightly faded from former mount, professionally conserved with loss at top of sheet not affecting image


In the spring of 1845, the 25-year-old Mary Ann Evans met "the most interesting young man she had seen and superior to all the rest of mankind". She spent two days in the company of this young man, who was employed as a picture restorer at Baginton Hall, near the Evans family home in Coventry. The attraction was mutual - he described her as "the most fascinating creature he has ever beheld" - and for a time it seemed that an engagement would shortly follow. However, the romance proved short-lived: a second meeting lacked the chemistry of the first, and the poor prospects of a picture restorer loomed large as an obstacle for all concerned. The identity of the young George Eliot's suitor remained unknown to scholars until 2009, when he was identified with a high degree of confidence as George Barker Jr. (1818-1883), a picture restorer of the right age and the right local background, who is known to have worked at Baginton Hall at the period in question (see Jacob Simon, 'Desperately Smitten', Times Literary Supplement, 3 April 2009, p.15).

There is compelling circumstantial evidence to identify this current portrait as having been sketched by George Barker during his brief romance with Mary Ann Evans. It is highly competent, as would be expected from a picture restorer, but the artist does not quite have the flair required to make a living as an artist (for example in the poorly drawn right hand). Its likeness to other portraits and later photographs of George Eliot is striking, with its long nose, soft, generous mouth and heavy jaw-line. The drawing appears to be of the right date, and its informal and unconventional nature very strongly suggests that it was drawn from life, capturing a young woman who has laid down her book and is about to turn and resume her conversation with the observing artist. It makes no attempt to present the sitter as a conventional beauty but there is an unmistakable intelligence in her face and a liveliness and sensitivity to the eyes that leaves little doubt that the artist was capturing in chalk "a person", as Barker described Evans, "of such superior excellent and powers of mind".  

The attribution of this painting was announced by George Eliot's biographer Kathryn Hughes in 2017 ( and it has been widely accepted by scholars. It was used as the front cover of the second edition of the Cambridge Companion to George Eliot (2019), is included in the George Eliot Portrait Gallery that forms part of the George Eliot Archive (, and was exhibited in 'Becoming George - The Unexpected Life of George Eliot' at the Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery (2019). Preliminary facial recognition analysis on the portrait undertaken as part of the FACES project by Professor Conrad Rudolph at the University of California, Riverside, confirmed its strong similarity to other portraits of George Eliot. There are compelling reasons to believe that this charming sketch provides a portrait of the author as a young woman that is not only an accurate likeness but also an image with deep personal resonance.