John Constable sketch of Salisbury Cathedral
The sketch for ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds’, estimated at £2m-3m at Christie’s.

Image: Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

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A full-sized preparatory study for his Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds, a finished painting now in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California, the sketch dates from 1823 and is the only rendering of this celebrated view of the cathedral remaining in private hands.

The 2ft 2in x 2ft 6in (65 x 77cm) oil on canvas is estimated at £2m-3m at Christie’s.

The picture was fondly referred to as ‘The Vision’ by the artist’s family with whom it remained until the late 19th century. It was then sold by New Bond Street dealer Dowdeswell to Thomas W Bacon (1873-1950) of Ramsden Hall in Essex, before later being sold by one of his descendants sometime after 1984.

Although it has subsequently changed hands twice – once via London dealer Simon Dickinson – this will be the first time it has appeared at auction.

Famous commission

During his career, the artist painted around 300 works depicting Salisbury but the views he made of the cathedral are easily his most famous. Among them were those commissioned by Constable’s most significant and enduring patron, John Fisher (1748-1825), Bishop of Salisbury.

Initially Constable executed an oil sketch en plein air in 1820 which was then worked up into the commissioned painting which was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1823 and now hangs at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Dr Fisher then commissioned a second version of the subject as a wedding gift for his daughter [the Huntington picture] and the full-scale compositional sketch at Christie’s was executed in preparation for that painting.

Two years later, Fisher commissioned yet another version of the subject (with a less stormy sky), the sketch for which is at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, with the finished painting now in the Frick Collection, New York.

Christie’s head of the Old Masters evening sale Clementine Sinclair said: “Depicting the majestic building of Salisbury Cathedral with its soaring spire, this wonderfully fluid oil sketch forms part of a body of work executed during the 1820s… at a time when Constable’s biographer CR Leslie considered the artist’s art: ‘never more perfect, perhaps never so perfect’.

"We are thrilled to be offering this important work to the market for the first time.”

In January 2015, a smaller painting Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows sold at Sotheby’s New York for $4.5m (£3.1m). In July 2013 the same work had appeared at Christie's South Kensington as part of a sale of works from the collection of the Viscounts Hambleden where it was catalogued as 'Follower of John Constable' and knocked down for £2800, before later having its attribution upgraded.