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May 29 2012

John Constable's The Lock to be sold at auction

Celebrated depiction of Suffolk life, owned by Spanish family, is expected to fetch £20-25m at Christie's in July

John Constable's celebrated depiction of Suffolk rural life, The Lock, is to be offered for sale at Christie's in July where it could easily become one of the most expensive British paintings to be sold at auction.

The auction house said it was to sell the only one of Constable's Stour series - which includes The Hay Wain in the National Gallery - that remains in private hands.

Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Europe, said The Lock was "one of John Constable's greatest paintings and an outstanding masterpiece of British art". He added: "This superb landscape, coming from the same series as The Hay Wain, represents British landscape painting at its very best and is sure to attract bidding from museums and collectors from all over the world."

UK museums are unlikely to have deep enough pockets for a work that, when it was bought at auction in 1990, set a record for a British work of art. It was bought for £10.8m and held the record until 2006 when a view of Venice by Turner, Constable's rival, sold for £20.5m at Christie's in New York. Another Turner sold for £29m at Sotheby's in London in 2010.

The current record is considered to be held by a 1976 Francis Bacon triptych, which was bought by Roman Abramovich for £43m at Sotheby's in New York in 2008, although there is a debate about what counts as a British painting given Bacon was born in Dublin.

Christie's has put an estimate of £20-25m on The Lock, which is being sold by Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, a former Miss Spain who represents one of Europe's greatest art-collecting families. It has been on display at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid and the family says its sale will safeguard the future of the private collection and allow loans of other paintings to the museum.

The sale has not been without controversy. Thyssen-Bornemisza's stepdaughter, Francesca Habsburg, wrote a letter to El Pais last year in which she called her stepmother "unreasonable, and completely isolated from reality".

The Lock is one of six paintings that make up he Stour series of large-scale rural works that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825. After its exhibition in 1824, the Morning Post art critic wrote: "Mr Constable contributes a landscape composition which for depth, sparkling light, freshness and vigorous effect exceeds any of his works."

Until it went to Spain, The Lock had remained in the possession of the family of its first owner, the businessman and collector James Morrison.


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January 25 2012

Artoon of the week – Constable and Turner

The great painter of serene country scenes finds his tranquility tested by a Turnerian tumult, in Peter Duggan's latest cartoon take on art history



June 15 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoons – John Constable and Gustave Courbet

Cartoonist Peter Duggan records the moment John Constable helped French realist painter Gustave Courbet name one of his most famous works



December 03 2010

The great British art collection

Nick Clegg and Samantha Cameron among guest curators for exhibition of works normally housed in embassies and ministries

It has witnessed governments and empires collapse, heard the gossip of mandarins and seen the rise and fall of many a calculating politician. But, for the first time, the Government Art Collection is to face an entirely different audience – the public who paid for its acquisition.

The collection – which has decorated British embassies, consulates and ministerial buildings throughout the world for more than a century – is going to be displayed to the public.

Arch political operator Lord Mandelson, the prime minister's wife, Samantha Cameron, and the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawers, are among the guest curators choosing which of the 13,500 works will go on display.

Works from the collection, whose purpose is to promote the best of British art, will be on display at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London from June next year until September 2012. "The government art collection has been in existence since 1898, but this is the first time in its 113-year history that people will be able to walk in off the street to see it, we are thrilled to have it running for 15 months," said Penny Johnson, director of the collection.

The works serve an important diplomatic service, she said. "They can act as important icebreakers, or conversation starters. Of course the reason they are there is to promote British art but if they help make conversations flow a little easier, that's another positive."

The first of five displays will also include choices from the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, the British high commissioner to South Africa, Lord Boateng, the British ambassador to Moscow, Dame Anne Pringle, and culture minister Ed Vaizey.

"The collection is a unique treasure," said Vaizey. "It's run on a shoestring and shown in a haphazard way in ministries and embassies, but what better way to open it to the public than at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London, in one of the most diverse communities in the country."

Out of the thousands of paintings, prints and sculptures hanging on the walls of embassies around the world or kept at the collection's base off Tottenham Court Road in central London, Samantha Cameron chose a work by distinctly working class, unavoidably northern painter LS Lowry. Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook, painted in 1946 and bought by the collection for £120 a year later, depicts mill workers enjoying one of their two statutory days' holiday a year at a bustling fair.

Mandelson has plumped for a shadowy historical portrait of the celebrated, but ruthless, Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, while Boateng has chosen Peas are the New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith.

The collection was established, in a typically British way, almost by accident, with parliament deciding that it was cheaper to buy large portraits to cover walls than redecorate Whitehall at the end of the 19th century. Since then the attention bestowed on the collection has depended in no small part on the political rough and tumble of the age, with the art in buildings such as Downing Street and the Treasury changed to suit the tastes of new inhabitants after each new government or cabinet reshuffle. And while David Cameron was too busy to chose the art for his new offices personally, both his deputy Nick Clegg and his right hand man George Osborne took a keen interest.

For the consulates and embassies around the world, the 14-strong team at the collection chose works that not only show off the best of British, but hold relevance for the countries they live in.

A dashingly romantic portrait of Lord George Gordon Byron, by Thomas Phillips, bought for £110 in 1952, resides in the Greek embassy in Athens, a nod to the poet's fateful decision to fight in the Greek war of independence, while there are no prizes for guessing where LA woman by Scottish artist Jim Lambie can be found.

Johnson and her team continue to scour small art galleries and emerging artists' studios to invest in the British art of the future with a £200,000 annual budget to add to the collection, which includes work by Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Constable, Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Paul Nash,

Pushing in a rail of priceless works from the 16th century onwards, at the collection offices in central London, she suggested one reason why the public should be keen to visit the exhibition. "If these paintings had ears, imagine what they would they have heard, and known," she said. "They've had very interesting lives."


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February 13 2010

Art's lost subject

Western culture has long positioned itself as distinct from nature. Now with climate change, argues Antony Gormley, it's time to rethink the purpose of art

I have just driven through the Hatfield Tunnel. Above it are factory outlet shops that sell overproduced goods at reduced prices to bargain-hunters. The tunnel is long, and I imagine that the shops are plenty. These out-of-town malls are satellites of emergent in-town complexes, such as the new Westfield at Shepherd's Bush and the newer one that will be at Stratford East on the Olympics site. Art is similarly involved in a system of exchange and distribution that involves in-town and out-of-town franchises that may, as with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, spread first downtown, then to Bilbao, then to Berlin and finally to Abu Dhabi; or the Tate establishing outposts in Liverpool and St Ives, then expanding itself on Bankside and now expanding again. Art has seemingly become enmeshed in the same processes of expansion and growth that have characterised late capitalism.

And yet this bland comparison does not really wash. Shops are there to satisfy inflated desires. Art galleries contain forms and experiences that inspire, question and extend human experience. Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself, without which we are already dead.

But what happens to your enthusiasm for belonging and contributing to this system of distribution when you are told that we have 96 months before the tipping point, when the feedback systems of man-made global warming take over – probably resulting in tens of millions of climate-change refugees displaced and made homeless by the end of this century? When faced by the global climate crisis in a culture that encourages us to do more, produce more, be seen more, my initial response is paralysing fear; I want to shrink, to go into a hibernating state with minimum muscular effort and put minimal demand on any kind of fuel.

The carbon crisis calls for a re-­examination of our faith in the technological basis of western progress. A change in belief is a cultural change; art and artists are implicated. As Paul ­Ehrlich and others have pointed out, human evolution has been driven by cultural rather than biological change; our brain size, synaptic activity, physical characteristics have not changed much in the last million or so years. What has changed is the material culture that we have made and which has in turn made us, from stone tool-making, farming, printing, the industrial revolution, the information revolution and now, maybe, the most critical and difficult revolution of all: a complete reversal of many of the values that we have held dear. We can no longer assume that more is better. Technology that was in some senses made to make life better has now become the problem.

But art is not technology; it is useless but vital. It is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive. When you ask "what is the point of art?" you could reformulate the question to "what is the point of ­human beings?"

At the British Museum there is a carving of two reindeer, crafted from a mammoth tusk 12,000 years ago. The artist's depiction of the antlers pressed against the flanks of the female in front, with the stag at the rear, of the eyes and the winter markings of the coat are the result of acute observation and enormous empathy with the life of these animals. It was by following the seasonal migrations of reindeer that modern Europeans survived between ice ages. When swimming across a glacial melt river, the deer were easily hunted. The making of this object was an expression of connection, identification with the continuation of life, its interconnectivity both in sex and in death and, by inference, the human position within a chain of being.

There is a strong connection between the urge for survival and the art of a people and a time. We have a task in hand. Culture in the developed western world has always positioned itself in distinction to nature: now we have to discover our nature within nature.

A Constable cloud study at the V&A: a small sketch in oil and pigment on board captures that most fleeting of things – the effect of sunlight on water vapour in our atmosphere. Here are ever-changing forms that evoke time, space and the act of being itself, but they are also an invitation to empathise with the exchange systems in our atmosphere. Single dry brushstrokes capture high cirrus against the thin, cold, high air, while rotating brushstrokes evoke the lower nimbus clouds that form hovering masses of white just above our heads. This sketch is another object that locates us within the scheme of things, showing our ability to engage in elemental exchanges.

I feel powerless, locked into a system and infrastructure that I cannot control, built on the basis of infinite growth that is unsustainable both in terms of demography and resources, people, air, water and food. How can I avoid making situations worse? How do I justify my life or indeed this culture as a whole? This was the problem keenly felt and left unsolved at the recent climate negotiations in Copenhagen. How can there be a consensus on the use of resources when half the developing world wants to experience the same standard of modern living as us and wants to undergo the past 300 years of western development in a sixth of the time?

An overcast sky, a dark river and a distant town. A naked woman sits on the ground and suckles a baby under a stunted holm-oak, sheltered by bushes. Opposite her, on a low brick plinth capped by stone, rise two ­broken pillars. To the side and in front of this altar stands a fully clothed man, nonchalantly holding a staff in his right hand. He is smartly dressed in breeches and a fine linen shirt with white and red leggings. He looks over to the naked woman; she looks at us. We are involved in this scene, which is as engaging and enigmatic as when it was painted nearly half a millennium ago. It's Giorgione's The Tempest and it hangs in the Accademia in Venice. Here we are held by an atmosphere partly meteorological, partly psychological. Lightning is striking in the distance behind the town where the sky is blackest. The effect of the work is to envelop us in that moment in the storm before the rain starts, when the world and everything in it is waiting to change: continuity, future, life, love, nature – everything hangs in the balance.

Has our confidence in human continuity undermined our ability to make art at all? Art, certainly western art, has been an expression of confidence: confidence in a culture's lifestyle and in its continuity into the future. Now art undermines and investigates systems of power and, rather than projecting stable, traditional values into the future, questions the viability of any kind of future at all. We have to re-evaluate the function of art within the frame of a sustainable lifestyle best exemplified by those societies that have had little technological advance.

In 1770 Joseph Banks visited Tahiti and wrote of the Tahitians: "... thus live these – I had almost said happy – people, content with little, nay, almost nothing ... From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature, which we Europeans have increased to an excess which would certainly appear incredible to these people, could they be told it. Nor shall we cease to increase them as long as luxuries have been invented and riches found."

Rising sea levels are destroying the homelands of Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands (among others) as a result of too much CO2 in the atmosphere, put there by us, and yet they are furthest away from the benefits and excesses through which our industrialised world has enjoyed itself. The people of Tuvalu are the ones who are suffering for our sins.

Can we use art as a way of investigating this perilous time? Can we change from our obsession with production values? Instead of the perfection of an Asprey's catalogue or the gloss of the desirable branded object, can we accept that art has to find its own raw and direct way of existing?

In the turbine hall at Tate Modern the light is strange, the air is thick, it is summer but cool. Adjusting to the orange, yellow light coming from a great disc in the ceiling, people are moving slowly. Some lie on the ground. I had a distant impression that there were bats hanging from the ceiling; they moved, black silhouettes scuttling. Looking carefully at the golden light source, I ­realised it was a half disc pressed against a mirrored ceiling. The mirror stretched the entire length of the hall and made the disc circular and complete: we were mirrored in the ceiling; these were not bats, they were us. Passing under the bridge, I lay down among others who were in the picture on the ceiling: we could change it. I waved to myself, someone waved back. I was in a picture that was unfolding. I was inside an artificial world that was unfolding through and with us as participators. This was Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project at Tate Modern in 2003.

I can think of many artists who can do this. Joseph Beuys and Robert Smithson, Richard Long and Walter De Maria showed the way of direct working with a site, making a place to be in ways that art had only pictured before. Jannis Kounellis, by investigating the materials of trade across Europe continually in smell, texture and arrangement, underscores the relation between man and matter. Simon Starling investigates the subtle inversions and interdependencies of energy and made structures. Following the lead of Lothar Baumgarten, Francis Alÿs investigates the tribal relations of the city's forest floor dwellers and celebrates them. The work of all these artists makes you feel more alive, more aware, both of the human predicament and of our material and elemental surroundings. There are more – many more – who are using their lives to balance thought, matter and feeling in a way that has never existed before.

Last summer I was in Scotland, in a wood just west of the Pentland Hills, and came upon a robust hut, its thick walls made of large lumps of the local dark igneous stone. It was slate roofed with a single door. Stepping in, down, and getting used to the low light entering from two unglazed windows from each gable end, I recognised that the floor was uneven and, in the half light, that I was actually standing on bedrock. This surface revealed the surface of our earth, unadorned, bruised, cracked, wedged open by roots, smoothed by ice, pitted by water, laid by sedimentation. This revealing of the underneath of things, the hidden support that lies beneath trees, homes, buildings, was both shocking and engaging. Here was a useless building in which we could encounter our dependency: a brilliant work by Andy Goldsworthy.

What I am asking for is a reassessment of what art is and how it works. I am questioning the linear trajectory of art history as part of western development, recognising that all art exists in the sense of a continuous present. We are now in a position to acknowledge that those stages in an evolutionary past that would, in previous times, have been thought of as primitive, are coexisting in this era and are not superseded – and actually the use of the fetish and the totem as reference points for a model of art are enormously useful.

How do I justify the work and life of my studio, with its 10,000 square feet of heated space and my 17 assistants? In the final analysis I do not have to justify what we do; this workshop is part of cultural evolution, part of an attempt to define my own belief systems and those of my colleagues. I can only hope that this is a creative community, a place where people can share skills, ideas and energy. I hope that it can be a fulcrum of change and exchange in which the idea of an inclusive culture can be born. In making art a specialisation and its exchange a matter of high monetary worth, we have lost sight of its central subject – the human being. In the art of the 20th century the Duchampian breakthrough was the examination of human labour and mass production in the "found object". I would like art to refocus on the lost subject.

But it is also my responsibility to make sure that I can deal with my own impacts, including the carbon footprint of the studio and all its activities. I have had the carbon footprint of the studio assessed and minimised my flights; the studio is insulated, and we will install solar panels on the roof (it is wide and relatively flat). We must recycle more of our materials and investigate the viability of a wind turbine. I must also decide whether carbon offsetting is a conscience salver or a real benefit.

Having done all of this, my greatest responsibility is to make work in the most direct way that I can, and interpret this time and place in a way that makes people more aware of themselves and it.

A collection of essays on art and climate change, Long Horizons, commissioned by the British Council, is available from www.juliesbicycle.com.


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January 26 2010

Video: Location of John Constable's painting identified

National Trust's Martin Atkinson compared old Suffolk maps and hedges to find the exact location where John Constable painted The Stour Valley



John Constable's famous rural landscapes retraced to the Stour Valley

The exact spot from which John Constable painted The Stour Valley and Dedham village almost 200 years ago, one of his best loved scenes, has been traced by a researcher poring over old maps and modern hedges.

It is not just the horse drawn carts and the straw hatted agricultural labourers who have vanished: changes in field boundaries and agricultural use, new lines of hedges and more recent tree planting mean that the serpentine bends of the river and the little village itself have almost disappeared from view.

The scene is a rural idyll with a typical Constable dash of earthy realism. The beloved landscape around Constable's birthplace at East Bergholt provided the artist with inspiration for the rest of his life.

This painting, now in a Boston museum, was commissioned as a gift to comfort the homesickness of an exile: Philadelphia Godfrey, born only a few hundred yards away, who was marrying and moving to north Wales. She would certainly have identified the occupation of the men, and remembered a characteristic country smell: they are breaking up an old dung hill which has been maturing nicely for months, before spreading it as fertiliser on the fields.

The land, like other iconic Constable landscapes on the Suffolk-Essex border, including Flatford Mill and Willy Lott's House – seen in the background of The Hay Wain, once voted Britain's favourite painting – is owned by the National Trust.

The spot where he made the drawings or oil sketches has been traced for most of the paintings, allowing for his trick of sometimes moving features to achieve the effect he wanted, but the high perspective bringing into view two churches, Langham and Dedham, and the Fen Bridge over the river Stour, remained a puzzle until National Trust land agent Martin Atkinson started to compare a copy of the painting with a patchwork of local maps in the Suffolk Records Office.

Atkinson soon realised that the scene changed dramatically even in the artist's lifetime, in the decades after he painted it in 1814-15. Field boundaries shown in an 1817 enclosures map of the area changed dramatically by the time a later map was made in 1830. Some fields had disappeared completely, and new hedges at completely different angles, many now with fully grown trees, plotted the new boundaries.

He was probably painting at the edge of a road which he would later follow down the hill to continue working at Flatford Mill.

Constable's paintings are now among the most beloved and valuable in 19th century British art, but in his lifetime he struggled for financial success and recognition, and could never have married his beloved Maria without money inherited from his corn merchant father. Millions now go on pilgrimage every year to the scenes he painted.


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