Academy at Lamplight by Joseph Wright of Derby
‘An Academy by Lamplight’ from 1769 by Joseph Wright of Derby that fetched a record £6.3m at Sotheby’s Old Master evening sale. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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An Academy by Lamplight from 1769 was one of the artist’s important ‘candlelit’ pictures and was appearing on the market for the first time in two centuries.

Estimated at £2.5m-3.5m at the auction last night, it drew strong competition between three bidders and was eventually knocked down to a buyer on the phone at £6.3m

The 4ft 2in x 3ft 4in (1.27 x 1.02m) oil on canvas was consigned to Sotheby’s from Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk, having descended through the family of wealthy carpet manufacturer Sir Savile Crossley (1857-1935), 1st Baron Somerleyton. Proceeds from the sale of the picture will go towards funding heritage projects at the estate.

While portraits by the artist are occasionally offered at auction, the appearance of an candlelit subject of this quality and scale was a rare event.

The auctioneers had billed it as “a supreme example of his dramatic rendering of light and shade and his association with the enlightenment movement”.

The price was an auction record for Wright of Derby, beating the previous high of $6.4m (£3.25m) bid for Portrait of Robert Shore Milnes that sold at Sotheby's New York in January 2007.

Enlightened subject

Sotheby’s worldwide co-chairman of Old Master paintings Alex Bell said: “It was a great night for British paintings. The fantastic result achieved by the Wright of Derby – a picture that epitomises the Enlightenment in Britain – is a real testimony to its quality and importance.”

An Academy by Lamplight was almost certainly the picture that Wright of Derby exhibited at the Society of Artists in the year it was painted. Depicting six young draughtsmen contemplating the cast of Nymph with a Shell, an Hellenistic statue housed in the Villa Borghese in Rome during the 18th century but now in the Louvre, the painting is one of two versions of the subject painted by Wright of Derby.

This first example is well known and, most recently, was part of an exhibition of the artist’s work at The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool that ran from November 2007 to February 2008.

The other painting of An Academy by Lamplight is identically sized but dates from 1770. It was acquired by Paul Mellon in 1964 and is now in the collection at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven.

Both works date from a period when Wright was establishing himself as one of the most exciting and innovative young artists in Britain. His most famous painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, was produced a year before the Sotheby’s picture.

Constable landscape

Another British picture at Sotheby's evening sale was a John Constable 1776-1837) landscape titled Dedham Vale with the River Stour In flood from the grounds of Old Hall, East Bergholt.

Dated to 1814 and 1817, it had last appeared at auction in 1979 where it sold as ‘attributed to T.C. Hofland’ but has also previously been ascribed to Constable’s friend Ramsay Richard Reinagle (1775–1862).

According to the auction catalogue, the results of recent scientific analysis and “up-to-date” connoisseurship have meant that it has now become “one of the most exciting and important additions to Constable’s oeuvre to have emerged in the last 50 years”.

John Constable landscape at Sotheby's

‘Dedham Vale with the River Stour In flood from the grounds of Old Hall, East Bergholt’, a landscape recently attributed to John Constable that sold for £1.5m at Sotheby’s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The painting is thought to have been commissioned by Thomas Fitzhugh as a wedding present for his future wife, Philadelphia Godfrey, whose parents were neighbours and friends of Constable’s family. The view is said to depict the view of back garden of Philadelphia’s childhood home.

With an estimate of £2m-3m, competitive bidding on the 20in x 3ft (51 x 92cm) oil on canvas failed to emerged and it was knocked down at £1.5m to a commission bidder.

Another work by Constable at the sale was the first sketch for the artist’s celebrated paintingThe Opening of Waterloo Bridge which is now in the collection of Tate Britain. Estimated at £1m-1.5m, it drew more competition as two phone bidders pursued it until the gavel fell at £1.9m.

Overall, the Sotheby’s sale posted a £25.1m total including premium with 41 of the 50 lots sold (82%).