Joseph Wright of Derby’s “An Academy by Lamplight” (1769) was sold at Sotheby’s for £7.3 million, or about $9.8 million, with fees, an auction high for the artist. The oil on canvas estimated at 2.5 million pounds to £3.5 million, or about $3.4 million to $4.7 million, in Sotheby’s Wednesday evening sale.
Eighteenth-century British painting can be tediously formulaic, but Wright of Derby was unusual in combining formidable technical skill with a fascination in the Enlightenment’s spirit of scientific inquiry.
“An Academy by Lamplight,” showing a group of young art students gathered around a Roman marble statue of a nymph, was one of the artist’s admired early candlelit subjects, a slightly earlier version of another painting in the Yale Center for British Art. It had been owned by the same English family for at least 150 years.
Another star performer was John Constable’s oil on canvas—The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, Seen from Whitehall Stairs, London, 18 June 1817—which brought £2,289,000 ($3,068,404) on its £1 million–£1.5 million ($1.3 million–$2 million) estimate. Of the 50 lots on offer, 41 sold for a total of £25,048,950 ($33,578,117) on a presale estimate of £18.5 million–£26.9 million ($24.8 million–$36.1 million), resulting in a sell-through rate of 82 percent by lot and 85.6 percent by value.