Two Boys with a Bladder was offered on the stand of Lowell Libson & Jonny Yarker at TEFAF Maastricht in March.
The picture was likely created as a pair with another of Wright’s candlelight paintings, Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight, now at Kenwood House in north London. It had been unseen in public since the 18th century and was unknown to scholars until its rediscovery by the dealership.
It is a classic example of Wright’s work, the earliest in a series of dramatic nocturnal paintings that include The Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump now in London’s National Gallery.
The gallery said it had a provenance possibly back to Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter, and from there traces it through a Christie’s sale of 1772 to the collection of George Greville, 2nd Earl of Warwick. By the mid-19th century it was in a private English collection and was passed down by descent until 2019.
The J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles agreed to buy the picture following the fair and an export licence was applied for.
Arts minister Helen Whately has now announced a temporary export bar on the picture and called for the £3.5m plus VAT to be raised to keep it in the UK.
Whately said: “As one of the most important artists of the 18th century, it is of paramount importance that we keep the works of Joseph Wright of Derby in the UK.”
The minister’s decision follows the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). The committee noted that the work represented an early example of elements of European art making their way into British art.
The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the paintings outstanding significance for the study of Joseph Wright of Derby and his working practice.
Committee member Peter Barber said: “In a painting now in Kenwood House London, which may have been intended as a pendant, Wright depicted two girls playing. I do hope the opportunity is taken to keep the boys in Britain!”
The decision on the export licence applications for the painting will be deferred until January 16, 2020. This may be extended until May 2020 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase is made.