The oil, Ehrenbreitstein (3ft x 4ft) [93cm x 1.23m]), is one of five pieces Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy during in 1835 and, of those, it is the only one today not hung in a public institution.
“Of those five paintings, it was Ehrenbreitstein that caught the imagination of public and critics alike,” says Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s. “Its true greatness lies in the way Turner applies his painterly genius to transform the ruins of a famous fortress into a poetic and symbolic image.”
Turner was originally commissioned to produce the work for the publisher John Pye for single-plate engraving. Pye, who had expected a watercolour, was eventually presented with the large oil ready for its appearance at the Royal Academy. The engraving took 11 years to complete.
The original painting was acquired by one of Turner’s patrons, Elhanan Bicknell, and since then it has appeared on the open market three times.
“These late works in particular…revolutionised the way we perceive the painted image,” says Sotheby’s senior specialist in British painting Julian Gascoigne. “By applying the techniques of a watercolourist to the use of oils, with successive layering of translucent colour thinly applied to the surface, which imbue his canvases with rich, hazy light, Turner gave his works an unprecedented poignancy and power that has rarely been rivalled since.”
Later works by the British “painter of light” have had recent success in the saleroom. Turner’s Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio (1841) made headlines in 2006 when it became the then most expensive British painting ever sold taking £20.5m at Christie’s New York. It had appeared on the market only once prior to the sale.
Since then, Modern Rome – Campo Vaccino (1839) took £29.7m in 2010 and Rome, from Mount Aventine (1835) took £30.3m in 2014 both at Sotheby’s London. The latter stands as the record price for any British painting.
Ehrenbreitstein made a then-record for a British painting during its last appearance at auction in 1965. Now Sotheby’s seems poised to challenge the current record and will appeal to an international market with a travelling exhibition of the painting to Cologne, Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong and Paris.
The sale takes place on July 5.