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A rare Constable comes to market

19 October 2015

What will the market make of the version of Constable’s The Lock that Sotheby’s is offering in London on 9 December? The sale comes three years after the prime version of this masterpiece was sold by Christie’s in July 2012 in a single bid – a record £20m (with premium: £22.4m), which was arguably still a snip at the price. That painting had been wrenched from the walls of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid after a dispute over ownership. But even when the late Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza paid £10.7m for it in 1990, then a record for any British artist at auction, it was rumoured that he had secured it to save Sotheby’s – on whose advisory board he sat – from an embarrassing failure. Now it is said that the Russian guarantor who found himself the owner of the painting in 2012 is hoping to off-load it privately.

But why should a celebrated Constable ‘six-footer’, a real market-rarity, be so undesirable? (Tate, of course, acquired the monumental Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by private treaty sale, not on the open market, for £23.1m in 2012.) One answer is implied in the question. These are large paintings – the ideal size for a museum, but not on the domestic scale of every traditional interior. The problem, however, is probably less to do with scale than ambition. These quintessential English landscapes are supreme distillations of the artist’s emotional response to the countryside of his native Suffolk; they are painted on a scale to elevate this ‘natural scenery’ to the status of the classical landscapes of the Old Masters. But despite their freshness they lack the intimacy and directness of the artist’s oil sketches, which are far more to the taste of our age. A recently discovered sketch for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows fetched $5.2m at Sotheby’s New York in January, while a tiny landscape measuring just 24cm high made over £250,000 at the Exeter auctioneers Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood earlier this month.

Serious institutional interest in The Lock appears to have been conspicuous by its absence, although the New York dealer Richard Feigen did his best to direct it towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where British art is poorly represented. There is, of course, a traditional American predilection for French art of the 19th century, but possibly also a sense that British art remains apart from the European mainstream. This is a particular irony given that Constable exhibited on the continent during his lifetime to great acclaim and influenced the French landscape painting so beloved in the US. At £20m–£25m, the estimate last time round was possibly just too high – but will it be too high on this occasion at £8m–£12m?

This is the estimate on the second version of The Lock, probably painted to facilitate the engraving of the composition. The original had sold on the opening day of the 1824 Royal Academy Exhibition, but after a year the engraver had not delivered and the owner took possession of the painting. As Sotheby’s is at pains to point out, this version is not a slavish copy but a revisitation that intensifies the atmosphere of the scene, not least by the inclusion of more dramatic rainclouds, and sharpens the detail. This also seems to have been the version exhibited in Brussels in 1833 and Worcester in 1834. It remained in the artist’s studio until after his death, and now comes to auction for the first time in 160 years. It leaves Apley Hall, Shropshire, believed to have been the inspiration for P. G. Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle. After a tour to Hong Kong, New York and Los Angeles, who knows where it may end up. All white knights welcome.