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Great British Paintings at Sotheby’s London
Friday, June 4, 2004

J.M.W. Turner Fort Vimieux (detai)

LONDON, ENGLAND. - The selection of paintings and watercolours in Sotheby’s sale of Important British Pictures on Thursday, July 1, 2004 is one of the best to have come to the market in recent years. In addition to some of the finest works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, J.M.W. Turner, and John Everett Millais ever to have been presented at auction, the sale also includes some exceptional conversation pieces from the collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, as well as works by celebrated names such as Constable, Palmer, Rossetti and many others.

Exceptional works by Reynolds, Turner and Millais -  Painted in 1782, at the height of Reynolds’ career, Portrait of Mrs Baldwin brings together all the qualities that define Reynolds’ oeuvre. A dazzling demonstration of his painterly skills, the picture is also testament to Reynolds’ remarkable ability to infuse his portraits with enormous imaginative appeal. Portrait of Mrs Baldwin depicts one of the most glamorous, widely-esteemed women of her day in extravagant Eastern costume. It is estimated at £3,000,000-£4,000,000.

In the hierarchy of works by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Fort Vimieux ranks equally high. Estimated at £2,000,000-£3,000,000, this magnificent picture is widely considered to be among the finest oil paintings by Turner still in private hands. With its highly dramatic atmosphere, its vivid colours and masterly handling of light, the picture brings to mind such masterpieces as the Fighting Temeraire, now hanging in the National Gallery in London. Indeed, both works were keenly contested by the most ardent collectors of the day, and in fact Fort Vimeux was eventually acquired by the celebrated collector James Lenox, the first American owner of any works by Turner, and the man who had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the artist to sell him the Fighting Temeraire for any price which he might name.

The painting depicts an incident off the French coast at Vimereux (now called Wimereux) in 1805. It was a small, but nonetheless heroic, incident in which a frigate stranded on the French coast came under heavy fire both from a detachment of enemy soldiers and from a nearby fort. Flying the white ensign, and returning fire bravely, the English ship survived, and escaped. When Turner painted Fort Vimieux in the early 1830s, the end of a glorious era in British Naval history was already in sight. But here, for the last time in his artistic career, Turner allows himself one final heroic reflection on a navy at its finest hour.

Turner was, of course, as accomplished in the use of watercolour as he was in oils, and his virtuoso handling of the former is clearly evident in another work in the sale - Flint Castle, North Wales. Painted in the early 1830s, at around the same time as Fort Vimieux, Turner’s view of Flint Castle belongs to a group of watercolours which were made in preparation for a published work (Picturesque Views in England and Wales), and which are today regarded as some of Turner’s most important works on paper. Estimated at £250,000-£400,000, Flint Castle is a serene and technically astounding watercolour that fully demonstrates Turner’s innovative and experimental use of the medium: in certain areas, he has scratched away some of the colours to reveal the white paper beneath; elsewhere he has used a sponge or a cloth to draw out the colour from the paper and create the sun and its reflection off the water; and in other parts of the drawing he has worked in minute detail, using intense hatching and stippling to create a heightened sense of naturalism. All of this, however, is overwhelmed by the main feature of the watercolour - the reds, yellows and blues in the vast dome-like sky capturing the first moments of dawn.

The sale also includes one of Sir John Everett Millais’ (1829-96) best loved and most well-known paintings. An iconic image of Victorian childhood, Cherry Ripe contributed greatly in establishing Millais as the most successful painter of his generation. It was first exhibited in 1881 and was instantly popular but, apart from a brief appearance in a Royal Academy exhibition in 1958, it has been out of sight for several decades. It is estimated at £800,000-1,200,000.


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