Rediscovered master's painting to fetch £1.8m

A rare work by the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Coley Burne-Jones, is to come back on to the market after nearly a century and is likely to set a new benchmark for the British master's work.

A Sea-Nymph, which was painted by Byrne-Jones in 1880, is thought likely to fetch up to £1.8m at a Christie's auction in June, surpassing the previous record for the artist of under £1.2m. But before it does, it will be briefly reunited with its sister work, A Wood-Nymph, from which it was parted in 1908.

Experts had lost track ofA Sea-Nymph, after it was sold at Christie's in 1908 by William Connal, a wealthy Glaswegian iron-broker and ship-owner who had hung it in his London home in Berkeley Square with several of the artist's other works.

According to the family, the picture was bought by an art dealer named Sulley. But, unbeknown to the auction house, it was almost immediately acquired by Mr Connal's cousin, raising suspicions that the dealer had been acting on behalf of this other branch of the Connal family at the sale. The story of its provenance was passed down through three generations and has come to light now after a descendant decided to return the work to the market.

A Wood-Nymph was bought at that time by Alexander Reid, an art dealer, also Glaswegian, who introduced Scottish collectors to the work of the French Impressionists and was himself painted by Van Gogh.

The painting eventually made its way to the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, which has agreed to lend it for an exhibition on Burne-Jones and his great friend, William Morris, which the auctioneers are mounting in March.

The image of the "sea-nymph", or mermaid, was originally conceived in 1875 as part of a design for a woven fabric by Morris and was typical of Burne-Jones's subject matter.

It became a particular favourite after he acquired a country retreat in the village of Rottingdean on the Sussex coast in 1880, the year the painting was produced.

But it was considered quite risqué for its time, which may account for the relatively low 1908 bid price of 100 guineas compared with the 1,130 guineas which A Wood-Nymph fetched.

Martin Beisly, Christie's head of Victorian pictures, said they had been "extremely excited" to rediscover the work which had been long thought lost and was known only through an old photograph.

"It never occurred to anybody to go back to the family - and it has ended up a long way from William Connal in the family tree," he said.

"This work is in Burne-Jones's top 10. It is a major picture by a painter right at the peak of his career. All the major pictures are in museums; to find a completely fully-finished oil by Burne-Jones just does not happen."

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