Hunt on for two missing portraits by Constable

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A hunt was launched yesterday for two rare portraits by John Constable that have been missing for decades.

The British Council wants to display the pictures at an exhibition in Paris that is intended to confirm Constable as one of the great masters of European painting.

His life-size portrait of a toddler, Charles Crawfurd, was last seen when it was sent to the Courtauld Institute in London to be cleaned in 1979. At that point it belonged to the Crawfurd family, from East Grinstead in Sussex, and it is believed that they probably still have it in their possession.

The other picture is a sketch of the painter's sister, Ann Constable, in her garden at East Bergholt, Suffolk – Constable's birthplace. The painting was last heard of in 1984, when it was sold at auction at Christie's. It is believed to be in Yorkshire.

If they are found, the works will be exhibited at the Galeries Nationale du Grand Palais in Paris in October, along with Constable's masterpiece, The Hay Wain, which was last shown outside Britain at the Paris Salon in 1824.

Andrea Rose, the British Council's head of visual arts, said: "The exhibition will show that Constable wasn't just an English landscape painter, he's a great European painter. People don't think of Constable in terms of peopled landscapes, but this will plant England of that period very vividly before the people of France."

The council is particularly delighted that the artist Lucian Freud will be choosing the works, because he has never curated an exhibition before apart from his own show at the National Gallery.

"He has the most wonderful eye," Ms Rose said. "Anyone who has ever looked at pictures with Freud will know it's a rare privilege."

She said being able to include The Hay Wain in the exhibition was "a phenomenal coup" and that it was "England's Mona Lisa, the absolute epitome of Englishness".

The British Council?s plans for 2002 include an exhibition featuring children's book illustrations by Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds, Quentin Blake and others, which will be shown in Newcastle and London before touring overseas.