The 7½ x 12½in (18 x 30cm) pencil on laid writing paper was offered alongside two lesser commercial works by the artist on June 19 and generated the fiercest bidding yet.
Consigned from an ‘important’ private collection in the UK, it drew multiple bids before it was knocked down at £70,000, nearly eight times the top estimate.
Research had been undertaken by the auction house and two external art experts to establish Constable’s hand in the drawing, which they discovered had also been sold by Sotheby’s in 1949 as part of the Gregory collection. This auction accumulated by art collector Dr Gregory was described by Sotheby’s at the time as “the most important sale of Constable’s works that has ever taken place”.
The subject is thought to be Framlingham Castle, 30 miles north of Constable’s East Bergolt home in Suffolk, the county where he painted many of his famous landscapes, including The Hay Wain. Constable drew the castle many times between 1800-15 – the approximate period given to Chiswick’s drawing on the basis of a watermark. Suzanne Zack, department head of British and European fine art, said the result showed “just how popular they [Constable landscapes] still are”.
While the artist is best known as a painter of landscapes, he also produced more than 100 competent oil portraits in his lifetime and countless sketches, many of them depicting subjects local to the Stour Valley or friends and family members.
A pencil drawing from the 1820s probably depicting Constable’s wife Maria Elizabeth Bicknell (1788-1828) sold within estimate for £8500. Zack described the small study as “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 drawing came from the family of Ronald Brymer Beckett (1891-1970), the art historian who between 1962-75 published eight volumes of the edited Correspondence of John Constable as well as Constable and the Fishers: The Record of a Friendship (1952).
Portrait sketches, like letter writing, played an important part in the romance between Constable and Bicknell, as they were often parted for long periods of time.
After she died from tuberculosis, Constable wrote to his brother Golding: “Hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel – God only knows how my children will be brought up… the face of the World is totally changed to me.” When the artist died nine years later, at the age of 60, he was buried alongside her in a Hampstead churchyard.
Completing the trio but failing to attract a single bid against a £30,000- 50,000 estimate was a portrait of a middle-aged gentleman believed to have been Constable’s paternal uncle Abram Constable (1742-1812).
The oil portrait, also from the Beckett consignment and thought to have been painted c.1809, was secured in an after-sale by a UK private collector for £30,000, an illustration of the price gap between Constable’s landscapes and the rest of his output.
Elsewhere in the sale was a rare Symbolist-inspired work by the Glaswegian artist David Forrester Wilson (1873-1950). Vanity, a signed 3ft 7in x 4ft 3in (1.15 x 1.3m) oil on canvas of two semi-nude women and a peacock with a preliminary oil study on the reverse, had been in the same family since the 1920s. It was painted a few years before in 1918.
The work sold well in excess of its £2000-3000 estimate, at £22,000. According to the Art Sales Index, this is the second-highest price for the artist at auction behind the The Wind, a large bucolic painting that sold in Andy Warhol’s studio sale at Sotheby’s in 1988 for $100,000.
More competitive bidding was sparked in the saleroom’s 83-lot auction of mainly Continental Old Masters offered the following week, on June 25. The financial highlight was an imaginary view of the interior of Antwerp cathedral dating to the early 1600s.
Dr Fred G Meijer, a specialist in 17th century Dutch and Flemish Old Masters who studied photos of the work, considered it to be a period copy after a finished version of the painting by the Dutch artist Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder (1550-1603). He is the earliest-known painter of architectural interiors that became a popular genre in Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque painting.
Autograph versions are found in several collections, including at Belton House near Grantham in Lincolnshire. The 12¼ x 18in (31 x 46cm) oil on panel, bearing two red wax stamps on the reverse, was knocked down for £25,000 against a conservative £6000-8000 guide.
A comparable version attributed to van Steenwijck with figures by the Flemish painter Abel Grimmer sold at Christie’s in 2014 for €47,100 (with fees).
Ten lots of British and Continental Old Master paintings and drawings were offered from the estate of Lord John Kerr (1927-2018), the great-grandson of the 7th Marquess of Lothian and co-founder of Bloomsbury Auctions. Seven lots got away with the top-seller here a marriage portrait of William Kerr, 3rd Marquess of Lothian, attributed to William Aikman (1682-1731).
Aikman painted many Scottish nobles during his successful career and was regarded as Scotland’s leading portraitist in the early 18th century when he painted this c.1710.
Inscribed with a Lothian inventory number for Newbattle Abbey – the former monastery that came into the Kerr family at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century – it sold for £12,500, over eight times its top guide. The portrait’s possible pendant depicting Kerr’s first wife Margaret Nicholson took £4200 against an identical guide.
Four lots from a London collection included a capriccio view of classical ruins from the Rome studio of Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691- 1765). It failed to meet its £18,000- 25,000 guide but got away at £15,000.
The work, a well-known imaginative composition taking in the Temple of Hadrian, the Flaminian Obelisk and the top galleries of the Colosseum in Rome, had remained in the same family since it was purchased in 1785 by the Irish private collector David Ker.
Elsewhere, a 2ft 1in x 20½in (63 x 53cm) oil on paper of the Greek philosopher Diogenes attracted a flurry of bids before it was knocked down at £15,000, well over the £1500-2000 guide. It was catalogued as a painting in the manner of the Flemish Baroque painter Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678).
The buyer’s premium was 25/12%.