The National Gallery yesterday announced that it has bought Georges Seurat's classic painting The Channel of Gravelines for around pounds 16m, half of which has come from National Lottery funds. The French Post-Impressionist masterpiece fetched pounds 6m when it was sold abroad in 1986.
The National Gallery last night defended the decision to use pounds 2.7m of Heritage Lottery Fund money over the next three years for the purchase. John Leighton, the gallery's curator of 19th century paintings, said: "There hasn't been a major work by Seurat to appear at auction since 1970 and this is a work that would be much sought after by most art dealers.
"The British public now owns the painting and it's there for them to see for ever and ever. We don't sell."
The piece will hang alongside seven other pieces by Seurat and Van Gogh's Sunflowers in the National Gallery's most popular section. It is the first major work bought by the National Gallery since the early 1980s and, in addition to lottery funds, was paid for by the gallery and other donations.
It is intended that the Seurat will stay in Britain, mainly at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, but it will also visit three other public galleries, starting in Glasgow. The painting was on a five-year loan to the National Gallery from Heinz Berggruen's private collection, which was due to expire next year.
Mr Leighton also countered accusations that the gallery had paid too much for the painting, given its decision not to enter the 1986 sale "I am sure they tried to buy at that time but it's important to remember that was before the art market had taken off."