Consigned from the descendants of the Hon. Lady Ward who had owned it since the 1960s, A coastal landscape with fisherfolk, a beached boat beyond was the most important oil by the artist to come to the market in a generation and one of the last landscapes in this scale to remain in private hands.
The 23½ x 2ft 6in (60 x 81cm) oil on canvas was completely fresh to the market and had been on loan first to Downing Street between 1994 and 2003 before transferring to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery where it was on display until earlier this year.
Thought to date from 1826, the serene picture at Christie's was produced around two years before the artist died of tuberculosis at the age of 27. Despite his early death, he was became an influential figure after moving to France at the age of 14 and later sharing a studio in Paris with Eugène Delacroix.
With the estimate set at £2m-3m for tonight's sale, the bidding started slowly but eventually three parties on the telephone competed for the painting. It was knocked down to one of their number at £2.15m - a huge record for Bonington whose previous auction high had stood for 18 years after a view of Venice took £340,000 in the same rooms in April 1987.
The highest expectations of the auction were on a fine view of Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780). Here the pitch was £8-12m.
Although it was a "museum quality" picture in good condition according to the auctioneers, it failed to attract bidding on the night and was left unsold.
In a rather patchy evening sale, three of four works by Pieter Brueghel the Younger were also unsold, suggesting that the Flemish artist's market may be undergoing some correction after a run of strong prices over the last few years.
Overall, the sale total was £19m (including premium) with 31 of the 48 lots selling (65%). Sotheby's evening sale the night before made £39.3m (including premium) with 37 of the 57 lots finding buyers (65%).
The sale also suffered from the withdrawal of six works from the Alfred Beit Foundation, collectively estimated at £5.3m-7.9m and including two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.
The foundation, a charitable trust that runs Russborough House in Ireland, was selling paintings to fund a €15m endowment for the upkeep of Russborough House in Co Wicklow. However, after opposition from heritage groups, Irish government ministers and online petition signed by 3000 people believing the works should be kept in Ireland, the foundation asked for a postponement of the auction until October. They said they need time to consider other options, including a "generous proposal" from a group of Irish donors.