Martin Gayford

Wanted! Lost portraits

Martin Gayford on his exhibition of Constable portraits.

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Criminals can turn into detectives: consider the career of Eugène-François Vidocq, thief, convict and subsequently head of the Paris Sûreté. And, as we have seen recently in London, political journalists can metamorphose into successful politicians. So it is not all that surprising that, once in a while, an art critic should cross the line and turn curator.

After many years of writing about exhibitions, for the first time I am organising one myself (or, more precisely, co-arranging it with Anne Lyles of Tate Britain). Even less amazing, I suppose, is that the job turns out to be rather different from what I had imagined. Previously, I’d always thought that making an exhibition roughly broke down into three parts: think of a good subject, select the right works and place them handsomely in the galleries. All of those are, of course, highly desirable objectives. What I had not foreseen was the difficulty of finding the exhibits in the first place.

The subject of our show — portraits by John Constable — is unusual. Though Constable is a very famous painter indeed, his portraits have been disdained and disregarded up to now — that is part of the point of taking a close look at them. Even so, I was startled to discover how hard it was to trace some of them. Pictures that are reproduced in standard books on the artist — and in some cases those that have passed through leading auction houses in the recent past — have proved difficult or impossible to trace so far.

This experience casts some light on an interesting and mysterious subject: how works of art get lost. Quite frequently, missing paintings and sculptures by celebrated artists turn up. Just this month, a picture by Watteau called ‘La Surprise’, which had been lost for 200 years, went under the hammer, also three drawings by Goya, missing for 130 years. Such discoveries are made all the time. When they are noticed by dealers at an auction, rather than by the auction house in advance, they are known as ‘sleepers’. The sharp-eyed can, on occasion, make a lot of money by spotting a sleeper.

‘Lost’ in this context sometimes has a particular meaning. When my daughter was about eight she briefly vanished from adult surveillance. When located and asked how this had happened, she replied accusingly, ‘I wasn’t lost, I was forgotten about.’ Something similar can happen to art, in two ways.

Firstly, private owners are under no obligation to inform the world of scholarship of what they’ve got. So they may be perfectly well aware that they’ve got a Watteau hanging on the drawing-room wall. Simultaneously, the same item may be discussed in scholarly journals and PhD theses, without the authors of those texts having the slightest idea of where the picture actually is.

Then, of course, the owner of a Monet or Gainsborough has every right to sell it to someone else, without notifying any art historian of the transaction. Even if they don’t, eventually in the natural course of events they will die and leave the thing to someone else.

At that point, a common trait in human psychology may kick in. That is, a refusal to believe what seems to be too good to be true. That kind of process explains why, for example, some years ago two fine Canalettos emerged from a garage in South Africa. They had been bought, attributed to Canaletto, by the father of the man who stored them with his car. But the latter had obviously not believed — or forgotten —- that information.

The world — or at least Britain — seems to be full of lost Constables. They appear all the time. We’ve got one in our exhibition. It isn’t a picture we were looking for, or indeed that anybody previously knew existed. It just popped up last year on the art market, which wasn’t an unusual event.

The Tate held a great and enormously popular Constable exhibition in 1976 (as it happens, it contained a portrait of the Revd William Walker, for which we have been searching, unsuccessfully). A mere decade afterwards two of the curators of that show suggested another — finally held in 1991 — one of their main motives being to display in public the ‘new’ paintings and drawings that had emerged in just ten years.

There are reasons for this state of affairs. Constable’s portraits — our special interest — were never much valued. They were painted for small fees, and presumably bought by their sitters, or sitters’ families. The known examples, and those mentioned in letters, add up to around 100. There were possibly numerous others, not documented, but lost. Many probably exist, masquerading on somebody’s wall as an anonymous early-19th-century work — maybe there’s one on yours.

Moreover, Constable was prolific in painting small works such as sketches — he could complete a sky study, it seems, in an hour or two. These works were not valued during his lifetime, nor immediately after his sudden death in 1837. At an auction the following year, bundles of Constable’s oil sketches were bought in by friends of the family to prevent their being sold for derisory sums. Eventually, many of these were presented to London museums, notably the V&A, by his daughter Isabel. But others were eventually auctioned and scattered to the four winds. These still reappear quite regularly.

Others are stubbornly elusive. The sole record of a touching group portrait of Constable’s wife, Maria, with four of their children is a photograph in a box file at the Tate, with ‘Private collection, Chicago’ jotted on the back. Two others — quick sketches of the family in their garden in Hampstead — passed through London sale rooms in the last two decades, and promptly vanished. One shows a woman, presumably Maria Constable, holding a parasol, the other has the same woman in the background and in the foreground a young boy playing with a toy cart.

These, from photographs, look wonderfully free, almost impressionist in technique: the oil painting equivalent of a proud father’s holiday snaps. So I end with an appeal. Has anybody seen these pictures? Because, if they have, we’d be very interested in looking at them, too.