A rediscovered landscape by the greatest English landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837) sold for 14 times its pre-sale low estimate of £6,000 in Chiswick Auctions British & European Fine Art sale last week. The drawing is of a group of tall trees on a river bend, with willows on the far bank and a castle on a hill in the background, thought to be Framlingham Castle. The castle was thirty miles north of East Bergholt, where Constable lived, and was a subject he drew many times between 1800-1815.
This charming drawing was sold by Sotheby’s as part of the important sale of Dr. H.A.C Gregory’s John Constable collection in July 1949. The preface of the catalogue described the collection as: ‘The most important sale of Constable’s works that has ever taken place.’ According to the experts at Chiswick Auctions, Gregory was renowned for his discernment, only having the best works by Constable in his collection.
Among the clues which enabled Chiswick Auctions’ Head of British and European Fine Art, Suzanne Zack to identify it, were the paper on which it is drawn, made by Joseph Coles at Lower Wookey Mill in Somerset, which Coles ran from 1788-1833 and a watermark that was in use between 1805-1815.
Images above: Constable’s sketch of his wife Maria; Oil painting of John Constable, Daniel Gardner, 1796, Victoria and Albert Museum; The Cornfield, one of Constable’s most famous paintings, in the National Gallery collection
Another recently rediscovered Constable work in the sale was a pencil drawing of Constable’s wife, Maria Elizabeth Bicknell (1788-1828). She was the love of his life and she died at the relatively young age of 40, from tuberculosis. Constable preferred to do portraits of his friends and family, rather than commissions for strangers and when he painted their portraits the relationship between artist and sitter can be felt. He produced over 100 portraits in his lifetime.
The drawing is from the private collection of the family of art historian Ronald Brymer Beckett (1891-1970) and comes directly from them, by descent. Beckett pursued his interest in art for many years, collecting drawings by English artists. In 1956 he was instrumental in mounting and curating the exhibition John Constable 1776-1837, held at Manchester City Art Gallery. He loaned works from his own collection and researched and wrote the catalogue.
Commenting on the sale, Suzanne Zack said: “It was thrilling to have the pleasure of researching and offering for sale such fascinating works by one of the finest English artists of all time. The result of the landscape shows just how popular they still are. We were also delighted to be able to have sold one of Constable’s most personal portraits, of his wife, which offers a direct insight into the artist and his works, beyond his well-known landscapes”.
The drawings had apparently been stored underneath the seller’s bed. Head of Valuations Liz Winnicott told me how prior to this sale, another woman had come in with two other small sketches which turned out to be by Constable and together sold for £90,000. You can see her video interview here.