The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo by John Robert Cozens has been a record-breaking artwork twice: in 1991 it was bought for £198,500 by fertility doctor Prof Ian Craft and in 2010 it was sold for £2.4m - a record not just for the artist, but for any 18th century British watercolour.
The current owner of the c.1785 panorama of an atmospheric sky above Lake Albano outside Rome recently applied for an export licence to take it overseas. However, on the advice of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), culture secretary Jeremy Wright has placed a temporary export bar on the work.
The government hopes a buyer will come forward to pay £2.9m to keep the picture in the UK.
Cozens (1752-97) was one of the most respected artists of his generation and Constable referred to him as “the greatest genius that ever touched landscape”.
The RCEWA committee noted that this was the British artist's “best work, both in terms of its quality and in relation to the story of British watercolour painting”.
RCEWA member Aidan Weston-Lewis said: “Cozens often endowed the celebrated sights of the Roman Campagna with an intense sense of poetic nostalgia, and this evocative view of Lake Albano – one of his favourite motifs – is a particularly moody and atmospheric example. Detail and local colour give way to a grander vision of landscape forms shadowed by clouds and enveloped in films of vapour.
“This watercolour has twice broken the auction record for a work by Cozens, and is justifiably heralded as one of the supreme achievements of 18th-century British watercolour painting.”
The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred until September 20 and may be extended until January 20, 2020, if a serious intention to raise funds is made.