LONDON.- One of the greatest works by J.M.W. Turner still in private hands will go on view to the pubic tomorrow (Saturday 1st July), prior to being offered at auction on the evening of Wednesday 5th July. Painted in 1835, Ehrenbreitstein is a late work, dating from a period that is widely considered Turner’s best: other works from this time now hang in the world’s greatest museums, with only a minute number of this importance and quality remaining in private ownership. Estimated at £15-25 million(US$18.7-31.2m / €17.3 – 28.9m), the painting will be offered alongside an unusually large group of ten works on paper by the artist (among them an early watercolour of Ehrenbreitstein), making for one of the largest – and certainly the most valuable, offerings of his work to come to the market at any one time.
The subject of enormous critical acclaim when it was first exhibited in 1835, the painting depicts the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz – a place of special significance for Turner. Though he made many drawings and watercolours of German views, this is the most important oil painting of a German subject that Turner ever painted.
Often referred to as the ‘painter of light’, Turner is widely regarded as Britain’s foremost artist, whose unprecedented style not only had a profound and lasting impact on British art, but was also a vital precursor to both the Impressionist and the much later Abstract Expressionist movements.
In fact, earlier this year, Turner was confirmed as the new face for the British £20 note, having been voted the country’s most important artist from among the 500 or so names suggested by the British public. Other nominees included Charlie Chaplin, Beatrix Potter and John Constable.
Major works of such astounding quality by Turner are rare on the market. The last example to be offered (Rome, from Mount Aventine, painted in the same year as Ehrenbreitstein and offered at Sotheby’s in 2014) made a record £30.3 million/ $47.6 million – the highest price ever achieved for any British-born artist at auction, and placing Turner alongside Rubens and Raphael as one of just three artists from the preImpressionist era to have achieved prices at this level.
Ehrenbreitstein was originally painted for the illustrious publisher John Pye as the basis for a large single plate engraving – one of the important series of large prints by which the artist established this contemporary celebrity. Pye had anticipated the artist would produce a watercolour, but Turner was so engaged with the beauty and symbolic resonance of the place that he felt he could only do justice to its scale and grandeur in oil. What he delivered to Pye – much to the latter’s frustration - was this magnificent 93cm x 123cm full Royal Academy exhibition oil painting. Translating a painting of this size and complexity was was not an easy task, taking some eleven years to complete, with a number of terse exchanges between the artist and the publisher along the way.
The painting was subsequently acquired by the man who would become one of Turner’s greatest patrons, Elhanan Bicknell. On his death in 1863, Bicknell’s vast collection, including this painting, was dispersed at auction, generating huge excitement and achieving sensational prices. Since then the work has appeared only twice on the market, most recently in 1965, when it achieved a price of £88,000, setting a new world record for a work by the artist.