Selling England by the pound

Today John Constable’s The Lock, painted in 1824, sold at Christie’s for £22.4 million. In the current art market of silly prices some lucky person got the bargain of their lives. Let us hope the picture will be placed in a museum, where people might enjoy it, instead of disappearing into a Swiss warehouse as the investment bauble of some gold-tap billionaire 400 Bad Request vulgarian. It is the same price as that commanded by ordinary works by the top price sellers in British painting, Turner and Bacon, both of whom have sold work for significantly higher amounts than this. It is the same price a collector might pay for an off-the-peg Monet one wouldn’t inflict even on an enemy. The Lock, being one of the six major works deliberately painted by the artist between 1819 and 1825 for the Royal Academy exhibition in order to cement his reputation, presented the last opportunity for a collector to own one of the major works by the artist of the quintessential English landscape. All the other major pictures are already off the market in museums.

Why so low a price? Of the top 50 most expensive paintings ever sold either privately or at auction only five are Old Masters, and of the remaining 45 ten are by Picasso, seven by Van Gogh and four by Warhol. The new billionaires, who are not old fashioned men of discernment and discrimination but those who buy conspicuously in order to impress friends, are uninterested in works not instantly recognisable for their “wall power”. Even the most knuckle-dragging mate of a Russian oligarch can recognize Warhol or Picasso but they wouldn’t know a Constable from a concertina and couldn’t recognise anything before 1850, all brown paintings looking alike to them.

Who bought it? Assuming that The Lock is too sophisticated a picture for nouveau squillionaires, the only two museums in the market at this kind of price are the Getty in California, which two years ago paid £29 million for a Turner view of Rome, and the museum being built from scratch by the Qatari

400 Bad Request

royal family, who are hotly rumoured to have bought the record-breaking The Scream by Munch a couple of months ago. No British gallery could afford a square centimetre of such a work, not that our museums actually need any more examples from Constable’s brush. For example, on the day of The Lock’s sale the Tate, which owns 261 works by the Suffolk miller’s boy, had 13 works on display. It always likes to keep plenty in reserve. There were more works by Constable on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum than at the Tate – the V&A owns 802 items relating to the artist including the full-size oil sketch for the Hay Wain. The National Gallery has nine works by Constable, all of them on display every day of the week free of charge.

“Painting,” wrote Constable, “is but another word for feeling.”

David Lee

The Jackdaw, 3 July 2012