Gimcrack painting fetches £22.4m at auction

Already laying claim to one of the longer names in art, a George Stubbs painting picked up one of the biggest price tags ever attached to a British painting – £22.4m – when it went up for auction last night.

The 1765 picture Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey, detail left, went under the hammer at Christie’s in London to an unnamed bidder.

Even by the standards of the formidable horse that it celebrates, it would have had to go some way to surpass the record for the most expensive painting by a British artist – the near £50m accrued in 2002 for The Massacre of the Innocents by another of the Old Masters, Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Nevertheless, having been purchased for £12,600 the last time it changed hands, in 1951, the sum was certainly considerable.

Gimcrack was one of the most famous stallions to race in the 18th century, achieving victories in 28 out of his 36 starts. There are five paintings of the horse, with this one considered to be the best.

Stubbs was commissioned for the work by Gimcrack’s owner, Lord Bolingbroke, leading him to travel to Newmarket to study the animal. It was evidently such a fine specimen that he decided to depict it twice on the same canvas; as well as standing in the foreground of the picture, Gimcrack is seen running well ahead of his rivals in the background to win a trial race. Even with Stubbs’ reputation as one of the finest-ever painter of horses, this work is considered a masterpiece.

The sale at Christie’s also set an auction record for Thomas Gainsborough, whose Portrait of Miss Read, Later Mrs William Villebois sold for £6.5m, nearly twice the previous record. It was not so successful a night for another Gainsborough painting, however, with Portrait of Colonel John Bullock failing to find a buyer having been expected to fetch as much as £5m.

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