John Constable's The Lock sells for £22.4 million

04th July 2012

It is now the most expensive British painting to have been sold at auction and with it comes the kind of sensation that is more at home with contemporary art than romanticism, though the latter was certainly controversial in its own time as a rejection of classicist sensibilities.

The work of art in question is John Constable's spellbinding landscape painting The Lock, which has just sold for £22.4 million at Christie's. Executed in 1824, the arresting image of rural Suffolk life might seem rather reserved, but at the time it was earth shattering.

From the very subject matter to the novel use of colour and brushstrokes that were more expressive than they had ever been, Constable's The Lock was more emotive than his predecessors, signalling a shift away from rationality and objectivity. This was painting as feeling, and so raw was its impact on a person's temperament, the art world was forever changed.

While the anonymous buyer may find his or her life being forever transformed by the acquisition of the painting, the decision to put the artwork on sale has created a gargantuan schism in one of Europe's most famous aristocratic families.

Bought by the late industrialist baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza in 1990 for £10.8 million, the then record price for a Constable, it has become noted for being an important part of a 250-strong private collection that had, since 1999, been lent to Spain for free by his fifth wife, baroness Carmen "Tita" Thyssen-Bornemisza.

According to Ms Thyssen-Bornemisza, famously a former Miss Spain, the reason for putting The Lock up for sale was because of the financial crisis. Speaking to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, she said: "It's very painful for me, but there was no other way out. I need the money, I really need it. I have no liquidity. Keeping the collection here is costly to me and I get nothing in return."

Her stepdaughter meanwhile, Francesca Von Habsburg – daughter of the baron's third wife – was incensed by the move. She claimed that her father, who was also an avid art collector – 1,600 of his paintings were donated to Spain in 2002 when he died – would never have agreed to it.

So dramatic has the move been that Sir Norman Rosenthal, the respected British curator, resigned in protest as one of the trustees of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, where The Lock had been housed.

While this story might have taken away some of the shine of the evening, the record-breaking sale of Constable's seminal work has once again thrust the English artist into the limelight, after a period of relative quiet. Though he is often considered one of the Old Masters – a fair argument given the inclusiveness of the term – his style sees him sit more comfortably with those that broke from the enduring orthodoxy.

Not only was he one of the chief English landscape painters of the 19th century and a prominent figure in romanticism, he was one of the sparks that paved the way for impressionism to revolutionise art intrinsically, creating the environment for modernism to exist. Perhaps then he was an Old Master.

 

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