“Joseph Wright of Derby is widely regarded as one of Britain’s most interesting and versatile painters, and his greatest works have become icons of British art the world over.” That’s the assessment of Julian Gascoigne—senior specialist in the department of British paintings at Sotheby’s in London—as told to Robb Report ahead of Wednesday’s record-setting sale of An Academy by Lamplight (1769). The painting has been hailed as one of the most important works by the British artist remaining in private hands.
The oil on canvas headlined the house’s offering of old-master and British paintings on December 6, commanding £7,263,700 ($9,736,990). It easily topped its £3.5 million ($4.6 million) high estimate, setting a new auction record for the artist. His previous record was set at Sotheby’s New York in January 2007 with the sale of Portrait of Robert Shore Milnes (1771-72) for $7.2 million.
“Wright has often been dubbed the ‘Painter of Light,’ and it is his early ‘candlelit’ pictures that both established his contemporary celebrity and for which he is most celebrated today,” says Gascoigne, adding, “This work was painted at a seminal moment in the development of British art, 1 year after the founding of the Royal Academy. Wright’s seemingly tranquil scene is a powerful statement on the erotic allure of antiquity and the transformative power of art, as well as being an incendiary contribution to contemporary 18th-century artistic discourse.”
Another star performer was John Constable’s oil on canvas—The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, Seen from Whitehall Stairs, London, 18 June 1817—which brought £2,289,000 ($3,068,404) on its £1 million–£1.5 million ($1.3 million–$2 million) estimate. Of the 50 lots on offer, 41 sold for a total of £25,048,950 ($33,578,117) on a presale estimate of £18.5 million–£26.9 million ($24.8 million–$36.1 million), resulting in a sell-through rate of 82 percent by lot and 85.6 percent by value.