An Academy by Lamplight starred at Sotheby London’s Old Master sale last year when it was hammered down for £6.3m, an auction record for the artist. Now, arts minister Michael Ellis has placed it under temporary export bar until July 31 in hopes it can be saved for the nation.
The picture, thought to have been completed in 1769, shows a drawing class of male students who study a female statue. It is believed to be the first of two versions of the subject. The other is now held at the Yale Centre for British Art in New Haven in the US.
Deferral of the export licence follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) administered by the Arts Council.
“Accurate observation and recording was an essential life skill, both for artisans and for privileged children, as these silk-clad youths appear to be,” says art historian and former RCEWA member Philippa Glanville. “Wright, or his as yet unidentified patron, might have opted for this informal and youthful assemblage in contrast to the newly formed Royal Academy with its strict rules and age restrictions.”
Ellis said: “Wright is one of the most preeminent painters of the Age of Enlightenment. His works help us to better understand the mix of religion and science in this period of huge industrial development. I hope that a buyer can be found to keep this extraordinary painting in the country so that it can be enjoyed by future generations.”
The bar may be extended until January 31, 2019, if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase is made at the recommended price of £7,456,440. Offers from public bodies for less than the suggested sum through the private treaty sale arrangements may also be considered.