New Constable discovery at Sotheby's

January 9 2015

Image of New Constable discovery at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's

One of the star pictures at Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sale in New York is, reports Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper, a sleeper from a minor Christie's sale in London. Constable's study for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is for sale at Sotheby's with an estimate of $2m-$3m, but was sold by Christie's at South Kensington for just £3500 in 2013. There, it was catalogued as by a 'follower' of Constable, in a sale of the contents of Hambleden Hall, the home of the Viscounts Hambleden. It had been in their collection since the late 19th Century. Says The Art Newspaper:

When the oil sketch came up for sale at South Kensington in July 2013, Christie’s catalogued it as by a “follower of John Constable” and estimated it at £500-£800. The unnamed buyer later confirmed that the work had been heavily retouched in the late 19th or early 20th century, depriving it of its lively, sketchy quality, but it has now been cleaned.

The painting was examined by Anne Lyles, a specialist on Constable, who dated it to 1829-30. She determined that the oil sketch is by the artist’s hand and was among the preparatory works for the final painting, which Tate bought in 2013 for £23m. Lyles describes the study as “one of the most exciting and important additions to the master’s oeuvre to have emerged in recent decades”.

I saw the picture at Sotheby's preview last year in London, and had no doubt whatsoever that it's 'right'. And that was before I read Anne Lyles' persuasive essay in Sotheby's catalogue, which places the picture in its context, and analyses all the key evidence. One of her conclusions is that Constable - who was in the habit of making numerous preparatory sketches and studies for his large scale landscapes - relied on the Hambleden picture most when making the final painting, which (having been recently bought) is now in Tate Britain.

One of the clinchers in the Hambleden picture's favour is that the dramatic, horn-shaped cloud formation it shows looming over the cathedral was copied by Constable for a larger sketch in the Guildhall art collection in London. But, crucially, Constable then painted over that horn-shaped cloud, to make the sky slightly less stormy in that area. Over time, that original cloud structure has become visible through the paint layers; if you look at the image of the Guildhall picture above you can just make out the 'horn shape' to the right of the spire, underneath Constable's later cloud formation. The point is - and apologies for my rather unscientific cloud descriptions - the Hambleden painting cannot be the work of a copyist, because only Constable himself developed that structure of the sky. As Anne Lyles says in her note:

[...] all the other preparatory sketches show the cathedral building more or less in shadow [...]. Moreover, the dramatic stormy sky in the full-scale sketch in the Guildhall (fig. 4) also derives more closely from the Hambleden study than the other sketches. Indeed the cluster of black storm clouds in the full-scale sketch to the right of the cathedral spire was once closer in appearance to the formation seen in the Hambleden picture until Constable decided to knock them back in the former by overpainting parts of them in white.

Anyway, the other clincher for me was the sheer quality of the painting. It's too good to be a copy. Yes, some elements, such as the structure of the cathedral are a little simplistic, but that's to be expected in a study like this, for the emphasis, the compositional development, is all about areas like the sky and stream, and they're pure Constable. For what it's worth, I also know that Anne Lyles - who used to be the Constable scholar at Tate Britain* - is no pushover when it comes to endorsing Constable attributions. So if it's good enough for her, that means it's really good. 

Now, here's the humbling bit - I missed the picture entirely when it came up at Christie's South Kensington, in July 2013. Indeed, I also missed the other 'sleeper' in that sale, The Embarkation of St Paula, which (regular readers will remember) was catalogued as a copy after Claude, but which was withdrawn at the very last moment and sold for £5m at Christie's main salerooms in London in December 2013. In my defence, the South Kensington sale was in the week immediately after all the main Old Master sales, and after South Kensington's own Old Master sale, when you'd normally expect things like the Constable to be sold. Also, the sale was branded as 'Colefax and Fowler [famous English interior decorators], Then and Now', so it sounded like the sort of sale you'd only find chintzy sofas in. Anyway, the fact is, I had my eye off the ball, and can only congratulate the sharp-eyed buyer.

But, AHNers, we must also sympathise with the buyer as well as congratulate them. For when the main press picked up The Art Newspaper's story today (e.g. here in The Mail), Christie's gave this rather unhelpful comment:

'We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a 'follower of'. We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.'

Which I think is a little mean, to be honest. Who are the dissenters? Christie's should say so, rather than just casting unspecified doubts like that. I suspect the truth is that no serious Constable scholars doubt it. The Mail's coverage also looks into whether Christie's might be vulnerable to legal action from the Hambleden vendors, and the paper quotes the editor of the Antiques Trade Gazzette, Ivan Macquisten:

'There was a legal case in 1990 that set a precedent for this when provincial auctioneers Messenger May Baverstock of Surrey failed to recognise something that ended up selling for a lot more and was sued by the vendor.

'In the High Court, a judge established a degree of responsibility that auctioneers have.

'If you are a small auction house holding your sales in a village hall it is reasonable that you may not identify such a painting.

'But if you are a Sotheby's or a Christie's with specialists departments with some of the leading specialists in the world, then you probably are. The burden on these bigger auction houses to get it right is far higher.

'That is not to say they are negligent or liable, that depends on how easily the work would be to identify and what due diligence was carried out to identify it.

'Have they been negligent by not carrying out checks on things like the composition of the painting and, in the case of Constable who was known for his cloudscapes, the quality of the clouds?

'I would be surprised if the previous vendor was not considering taking the matter further.'

Factors in Christie's defence include: the fact that the general subject matter - Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral' - is one of the more copied compositions in British art, and Christie's were thus not negligent in assuming the Hambleden picture was another; the fact that the picture was quite heavily overpainted, thus making certain elements hard to read; the fact that the sale price of £3,500 meant that only one other person thought it worth taking a closer look at.

In favour of the Hambledens, should they wish to pursue the matter: the fact that Christie's evidently did not show it to Anne Lyles, the leading Constable authority, before the sale; the fact that Christie's only recognised at the last minute that there was a £5m Claude in the same sale, which suggests that, when preparing the sale, not as great care was taken with the pictures as one might expect; the fact that Christie's did not put in the catalogue entry the fact that the painting might have had a 19th Century Christie's provenance.

But it's a very difficult area, and I wouldn't want to place too much blame on Christie's specialists. They work to extremely tight deadlines, and, especially in house sale situations, they only get a short period of time to look at each picture. Inevitably, things will slip through the net. Probably the culprit here, if there is one, is the system in which auction house specialists have to operate - if the bean counters further up the food chain gave them more time and staff, fewer mistakes might be made. But then what would we all do without the occasional discovery story?

* It's a matter of great regret that they don't have one any more, of course. 

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