Watercolour by Turner sets £2m British record

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The Independent Online

A painting by J M W Turner became the most expensive British watercolour yesterday, fetching more than £2m at auction in London.

The painting Heidelberg with a Rainbow, recognised as one of the most important Turner works of the early 1840s ­ when he was at the peak of his powers as an artist ­ fetched £2.038,500 at Sotheby's.

Showing the German city of Heidelberg, the picture easily beat its pre-sale estimate of up to £800,000, and fetched more than four times the previous price for a Turner, £473,000 for his view of Hampton Court.

Heidelberg with a Rainbow was bought by Agnew's, the same London art dealer that last bought it at auction in 1908, for what was then a record figure of £4,200.

Henry Wemyss, the British drawings and watercolours specialist at Sotheby's, said: "It is one of the greatest and loveliest of Turner's landscapes in watercolour. It is breathtakingly atmospheric and highly romantic with its incredible observation and attention to detail, all translated with a lightness of touch, evocative brushstrokes and blending of colours, simultaneously both bright and yet subtle."

Commissioned by an engraver by the name of Thomas Prior, the view of Heidelberg quickly became known because of a wide circulation of prints, and the watercolour itself belonged to several of the most important 19th-century collectors of Turner's work. Prior sold it to a carriage maker and Turner collector, Benjamin Godfrey Windus, of north London, after which it was recorded with an art dealer in 1847.

The Earl of Dudley, one of the richest men in England and an avid collector, paid 2,650 guineas for it when it next came on the market in 1872. The newspapers reported that the "radiant and rainbowed Heidelberg had been fought for and won" by the earl.

Its next appearance under the gavel was in 1908, at the London auction of the Stephen Holland collection, when the opening bid was 100 guineas. Frenzied bidding ensued between Agnew and the collector Hugh Blaker of Bath. Its price then was the equivalent of £235,000 today. Agnew sold on the work to its principal client, the Belfast-born shipping magnate Sir Donald Currie, in whose family it remained until yesterday. It was on loan to the National Galleries of Scotland for more than 20 years. Sufficient funds could not be raised to keep it in Scotland.

* The former Beatles manager Sir George Martin launched an internet auction yesterday for prints of the original score of "Yesterday", to raise cash for the British colony of Montserrat. Fans were bidding more than £2,000 for one of 500 framed copies each signed by Sir George and the song's writer Sir Paul McCartney. Sir George has strong links with Montserrat. He had his Air Studios there until they were destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Art's best sellers

John Constable

Along with Turner, he became one of the leading English landscape painters of the 19th century. In 1990, his painting The Lock fetched £10.7m at auction, the highest price for any work by an English artist. He produced pictures such as The Haywain and A View On The Stour, although the years before his death in 1837 were marred by depression and bereavement.

John William Waterhouse

A Pre-Raphaelite painting of a sleeping St Cecilia was bought for a world record of £6m by the composer Lord Lloyd-Webber in June last year. It was the highest price paid at auction for a Victorian work of art.

Damien Hirst

In Love ­ Out of Love, a diptych with butterflies affixed to a background of pink on one side and blue on the other, sold for £540,000 at a sale of contemporary art at Phillips, New York, in November last year.

The price far exceeded the previous auction world record for a Damien Hirst, which was set in New York in May 1999.

Lucian Freud The highest price paid for a work by a contemporary British artist was for Freud's Large Interior, W11, which fetched £3.5m when it was sold at auction by Sotheby's in New York in 1998.

Henry Moore

Henry Moore's Reclining Figure fetched a record auction price for a work by the artist in May 1999, 13 years after his death at the age of 88. The British sculptor's massive bronze sold for £2.5m at Christie's in New York. The previous record for a work by Moore was for Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figures which sold in May 1990.

George Stubbs

In 1995, £2.9m was paid for a portrait called The Royal Tiger. Almost life-sized, it depicted a tigress from Bengal that was given by Lord Clive of India to the 4th Duke of Marlborough for his menagerie at Blenheim.