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Icon member Sarah Cove examines a suspected Constable
05.07.2017

A lifetime of research - and a rare discovery

Icon member Sarah Cove ACR celebrates 30 years of technical art research in to the works of John Constable – and makes a rare discovery

Freelance paintings conservator and technical art historian Sarah Cove ACR reached a very special milestone this past June, marking thirty years of her Constable Research Project. Launched in 1986 in collaboration with the V&A, the project has examined the materials and techniques of the oil paintings of John Constable RA (c. 1799-1837). 

Since its inception, the scope of the project has widened considerably, and Sarah has gone on to work with Constables from most of the world’s public and private collections; consolidating an extensive professional network engaging her fellow conservators, Constable scholars, collectors, museums and galleries both at home and abroad.  

Just in time for the anniversary, a conference paper Sarah gave at the Center for Art Technological Studies and Conservation (CATS) has been published online as part of CATS Proceedings II, in which she outline the history of the Constable Research Project and provides a complete bibliography of the project’s published results.   

‘It’s been a very exciting year for me,’ she says.  ‘The landscape has changed considerably since we started, and the doors have been wide open to fascinating new discoveries.’

One of the most significant Constable discoveries in recent years

One of the most significant recent developments underscored the extent to which technology has come to play an increasingly prominent role in the research. In 2014, Sarah launched a Facebook page to provide new ways for members of the public to get in touch to talk Constable, or to explore questions of attribution.  This soon resulted in one of the most significant discoveries she made.

‘I was contacted by a lady who had inherited a painting of a cottage from her mother,’ Sarah recalls. ‘There was no expectation that it was a genuine Constable, but after seeing a photograph of the work I was fairly convinced it was.’

In the spring of 2016, the painting was shipped from the United States to Sarah’s London studio, where she carried out a preliminary technical examination – and the results were striking. ‘After a brief examination, it was clear that this was without doubt a rare ‘late’ Constable oil study, painted entirely in studio in the mid-1830s.’

Sarah’s conclusion was supported by fellow Constable specialist Anne Lyles, former Constable Curator at the Tate.  Anne ascertained the composition was an elaboration of a watercolour sketch from a sketchbook that Constable used in 1833-34 – now in the V&A collection.  This linked the study directly to Constable’s known oeuvre, despite a total lack of provenance beyond the owner’s great-uncle who purchased it in the 1950s.

Sarah cleaned and restored the painting last year, and this July it came up for sale at Sotheby’s in the Old Masters Evening Sale (Lot 60).  The results of Sarah’s research and examination have also been published online in Sotheby’s online sale catalogue

Its presence in the sale underscored the position Constable has attained among the greats. ‘Constable would be so chuffed to be up there with the Old Masters,’ Sarah says. ‘That was his life-long dream!’

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Lead image: Sarah examines the suspected Constable, © Sarah Cove ACR

Image 2: John Constable R.A., Landscape with red-tiled cottage, a windmill and a rainbow, c.1833-34 (Private collection). © Sarah Cove, Constable Research Project

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