Sunday, 24 October 2021

Sketch sold for £3,500 turns out to be a Constable masterpiece

A PAINTING sold by Lady Hambleden for £3,500 is back on the market for about £2 million

A PAINTING sold by Lady Hambleden for £3,500 is back on the market for about £2 million after experts found it was the work of British master John Constable.

It was among valuables sold at auction in summer 2013 at Christie’s in London following the sale of Hambleden Manor after the death of her former husband Viscount Hambleden.

The painting is a preparatory oil on canvas sketch for one of Constable’s most celebrated masterpieces, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, and was valued at between £500 and £800 by Christie’s, which thought it was the work of a “follower”.

A collector bought the sketch for £3,500 and then realised it had been heavily retouched.

It will now be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on January 29 with an estimate of $2 to $3 million.



The 1831 masterpiece itself was bought by the Tate gallery in 2013 for £23.1 million.

Anne Lyles, a leading authority on the Constable, suggests the sketch was made in the winter of 1829-30.

She said: “This oil sketch is one of five preliminary oil sketches which Constable made for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, which is perhaps the greatest of his late masterpieces and which was only recently acquired for the nation after a major fund-raising campaign.

“The recent emergence of this oil sketch from the Hambleden collection, where it was hitherto completely unknown to scholars, reveals its key role in establishing the dramatic and beautiful chiaroscuro of the final picture.

“The striking light effects on the cathedral in the completed picture, with its majestic spire piercing the stormy sky like a needle, are derived chiefly from the present study.

“Moreover, it also reveals Constable’s development of the composition, notably at the right where the familiar shape of Harnham Ridge now comes into view.”

Mrs Lyles said the sketch was “one of the most exciting and important additions” to Constable’s body of work to have emerged in decades.

She added: “In whichever year it was painted, it certainly came in very useful for Constable when he was refining some of the details in the final painting over the winter of 1830-31.

“Furthermore, Constable may have depended on the Hambleden oil for helping provide some of the architectural detail of the cathedral’s west front in the finished picture.”

Mrs Lyles says the date at which the painting entered the collection of the viscounts was uncertain.

However, the most prolific collectors of the family were W H Smith (1792-1865), founder of the book sellers and stationers, and his son W F D Smith (1868-1928), the second viscount.

She continued: “At the time of the dispersal of the contents of Hambleden Manor at Christie’s in 2013, it is interesting to note that this painting was overlooked.

“[It] was heavily retouched with a dark and opaque pigment, which probably dated to the late 19th or early 20th century, in a misguided attempt to ‘finish’ the painting, thus depriving it of its lively, sketchy quality.

“Thankfully, the retouchings on the painting were readily soluble in the course of its recent cleaning and Constable’s original and brilliant conception has been once again revealed.”

A Christie’s spokesman said: “We are aware that Sotheby’s are offering this work as a Constable.

“We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was ‘follower of’.

“We understand that there is no clear expert consensus on the new proposed attribution.” Lady Hambleden, 84, was born Countess Maria Carmela Attolico di Adelfia and married William Herbert Smith, the fourth Viscount Hambleden, in 1955.

When the couple divorced in 1988, she remained at the manor while her former husband moved to America, where he died in August 2012, aged 82.

She sold Hambleden Manor to a private buyer for an undisclosed sum at the end of 2012 and moved to a cottage in the centre of the village.

The following year she sold valuables, including paintings, tables, chairs, carpets and vases, saying she no longer had room for them, and raised just over £1.17 million.

At the time, she said: “Everything I owned naturally meant a lot to me because I have been living in the manor for almost 60 years.

However, having decided to move to a smaller property, I’ve had to adapt and sadly there was no room for some of these lovely things.

“I can’t say that there was anything I’ll miss in particular. You reach a certain point where you just make the decision and then detach yourself.You can’t afford to start thinking ‘oh, maybe I can keep this’, you’ve got to look to the future and be practical.

“My husband and I purchased some lovely things which, in those days, were not as expensive as they would be now.”

Constable was born in rural Suffolk in 1776 and was celebrated for his oil paintings of English landscapes.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is among his most famous works, which also include The Hay Wain, Dedham Vale and The Leaping Horse.

Lady Hambleden was not available for comment.

l W H Smith and W F D Smith also acquired a masterpiece by French painter Claude Lorraine for their collection. This painting, entitled The Embarkation of Saint Paula for Jerusalem, was also overlooked by Christie’s in 2013.

It was estimated that it would sell for only £15,000 to £20,000 after being described as a copy. However, it was withdrawn from sale and was sold at Christie’s later in the year for £5.1 million.

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On the Friday, there will be a show called “Who Got Rhythm? A Gershwin Spectacular”, a celebration of the music of George Gershwin with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Troy Miller and Fabio D’Andrea.

Jazz singer Gregory Porter, trumpet soloist Alison Balsom and Chinese prodigy Ji Liu on the piano will be among the musicians performing timeless classics including arrangements of Rhapsody in Blue, Fascinating Rhythm, A Foggy Day In London Town and I Got Rhythm.Other performers at the festival that night will include Prague electroswing band Mydy Rabycad, guitarist Darren Hodge, DJ Krystal Roxx and The Revue. There will be a mix of stand-up comedy and music from The Horne Section.

Details of the other nights’ entertainers have still to be announced.

New chief executive Charlotte Geeves promised the festival would be the best yet, adding: “We have an incredible line-up for this year.”

Concert promoter Harvey Goldsmith, who has become a festival patron, said: “Among a crowded summer of festivals, the Henley Festival stands out as a unique and very special experience which I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy immensely over many years. It’s a tremendous privilege to have been invited to become an honorary patron, particularly in a year with such a strong programme as this. I look forward to contributing as much as I can toward the continued success and the vitality of this wonderful festival.”

The black-tie event also features street theatre, comedy, fireworks, art and sculpture as well as a variety of bars and restaurants.

As the Henley Standardreported last week, a £35 general admission ticket has been introduced this year in a bid to attract more visitors.

A total of 6,000 tickets for each night will be on sale from 9am on Monday, January 26 at www.henley-festival.co.uk

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