25 May 2024

Abigail’s detective work may have discovered missing painting for biographer

Detective work by a Shropshire paintings specialist and auctioneer may have discovered the missing piece of a jigsaw for noted British biographer Michael Holroyd.


Abigail Molenaar, from Halls Fine Art in Shrewsbury, believes she has found a portrait by artist Robin Goodwin of the ‘Lady in blue dress’, the mistress of Michael’s late grandfather, Fraser Holroyd, who caused a scandal when he left his family for her in 1926.


The portrait was listed in the will of Agnes May Beaumont-Thomas and she is believed to have been the sitter.


Michael wrote a book, ‘Mosaic’, published by Little, Brown in 2004, about his research into the mysterious and elusive femme fatale, who was born Agnes May Bickerstaff in St Helens.


The book is full of revelations and secrets about Agnes May who married three times, disowned her family and constantly changed her family history.


During his painstaking research, Michael discovered that there are two paintings of Agnes May in existence, but he managed to locate only one of them.


“I went in search of her half-length portrait,” wrote Michael. “Robin Goodwin is an elusive painter, though his name is familiar to me. This is because, I remember, in the late 1940s he rented Augustus John’s studio in Tite Street.


“He had begun his professional career at the end of the second world war, taught for a time at the Slade School of Fine Art, did commissioned portraits for the money and sea pictures for love.


“He almost certainly painted Agnes May in the late 1940s or early 1950s, after which time he turned increasingly to marine subjects. The portrait, which was probably commissioned by an admirer, is as much a signpost in her life as her Lalique glass, a present from my grandfather in the 1920s, but I could not find where it pointed, its provenance or whereabouts.


“Somewhere, perhaps, hanging in someone’s home or in a gallery, an oil painting “half-length Portrait of a Lady in blue dress”, still exists. It will have Robin Goodwin’s signature on it, but no mention of the sitter who, in middle age, has finally lost her identity as she always wished, though without gaining another permanent name or recognition for herself.”


Now, due to her own research, Abigail believes she has found the portrait, which has been consigned to a sale of pictures, ceramics and collectables at Halls Fine Art on June 26.


The painting is signed by Robin Goodwin, dated May, 1948 and has the names ‘Mamita’, her nickname and Mrs Beaumont-Thomas, her final married name, on the back.


Agnes May moved to Worthing on England’s south coast in late 1965 or early ’66 and died at the town’s Berkeley Lodge Nursing and Convalescent Home in 1974.


By an uncanny coincidence, the painting’s current owner lives in the same town and revealed that he bought it for the very modest sum of 50p in a church silent auction in Moretonhampstead, Devon this February.


“Whilst the portrait is modestly valued at around £200 to £400, it has a fascinating story attached to it which will hopefully intrigue bidders,” said Abigail. “I started researching Mrs Beaumont-Thomas and Mamita and found a review in The Guardian about ‘Mosaic’, the book written by Michael Holroyd.


“There are just too many coincidences for this painting not to be the missing portrait of Agnes May that he was trying to trace.


“We have made contact with Michael’s agent and have shared photos of the painting which have been passed on. Hopefully, it will be the final piece of the jigsaw for him.”


Agnes May married Second-Lieutenant William Reynolds Lisle, at Oxted, near Godstone before the age of 21 and wed again at the age of 22 – 11 days after having been divorced – to Captain Thomas George Symonds Babb, son of a hotel proprietor in Minehead.


Eight years later, Captain Babb cited Fraser Holroyd as co-respondent in his divorce petition and Agnes May immediately married wealthy businessman, Reginald Alexander Beaumont-Thomas in 1934 when they went to live in Kensington.


Goodwin (1909-’97) lived at Newton Ferrers, Devon and specialised in seascapes, mainly of local interest and paintings are quite scarce and highly collectable. He taught renowned wildlife artist and conservationist David Shepherd (1931-2017), who was highly complimentary about his teacher.