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The Lock – John Constable

23 July 2012 | London Calling

Rose Balston discovers more behind the record breaking sale of the The Lock by John Constable, which sold for a momentous £22,441,250 in London earlier this month.

Earlier this month John Constable’s The Lock was bought for almost £22.5 million – a world record at auction for Constable and one of the most expensive British paintings ever sold.

This sparkling painting of a man opening a river lock in the Suffolk countryside is part of a series of six Stour Valley paintings exhibited between 1819 and 1825.  Constable’s devotion to nature and his native country is legendary. His canvases are filled with minute observation set amid charming, gentle pastoral scenes.  A dramatic contrast is often set with rolling clouds emphasising the English weather’s mysteries. His exquisite paintwork and vivid palette make these canvases jewels, much admired and coveted.

The Lock’ssale has been stained by controversy. Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza (owner of the exceptional Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid) sold the work to an unknown buyer, thereby tearing it away from public gaze, possibly forever, apparently for ‘financial reasons’. While she admitted losing it was ‘very painful’, she has been criticised lock (ahem), stock and barrel for failing to understand the painting’s importance to the history of art. So horrified in some quarters has the reaction been that Sir Norman Rosenthal, one of the European art world’s most respected curators, has resigned as a trustee of the Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza in protest.

So here lies the public response to snatching away a Constable masterpiece.  In London, we are – as ever – exceptionally lucky. The National Gallery and Tate Britain hold an excellent selection of Constable’s works, including the famous Haywain, which forms part of the same series as The Lock and painted in1821. But his pictures weren’t always appreciated. After labouring in his studio for many months on the Haywain – ‘almost fainting by the way’ – it originally met with a dreary response from London audiences. The public at the time, preferring great historical and biblical narratives, weren’t interested in the antics of rural life. In 1823 the Haywain was sold to an Anglo French dealer who exhibited it at the 1824 Paris Salon. There at last Constable’s achievement was understood, especially by painters (Delacroix amongst them), who acknowledged ‘the richness of texture, and attention to the surface of things… [and they were] struck with the vivacity and freshness’.  Slow off the mark in this instance, the English lagged behind the French by a few decades in appreciation of the joy of landscape paintings.

 

To learn more about John Constable join Rose’s Art Shot 'Romantic Revolution: Turner and Constable' in the National Gallery on Friday 13 July, 6.30pm-8pm. The evening will be spent discussing the lives, successes, failures and loves of these highly contrasting artists. They worked at the same time, with many of the same aims, but with astonishingly different styles.

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