Four unknown early paintings and sketches by John Constable have been discovered after laying hidden for almost 200 years in a family scrapbook.
Experts said the remarkable pieces, which date back as far as the artist’s teens, confirm that he was a ‘late developer’, with his trademark landscape style emerging later in his life.
However, the collection also contains some early drawings of family members that later became some of the painter’s most notable portraits. The collection has been authenticated by auction house Sotheby’s, after it was passed to them, and will go for sale later this month. The pieces are expected to collectively fetch upwards of £28,000.
The scrapbook, which also contained letters, poems and notes by the young artist, has remained hidden for the best part two centuries after being compiled by the Mason family of Colchester.
The Masons were related to the Constables by marriage and the two families were close during the 19th century when the works were collected.
One of the most notable works is an oval watercolour showing a team of horses pulling a cart over a stone bridge while a man carries a heavy load into a small village.
The work was painted 5 April 1794 when Constable was just 17, making it one of his earliest known works. But it shows little of the stylistic vividness that would later make him one of Britain’s most celebrated painters.
However, Constable painted the scene while he was still working at the family business and half a decade before he started training formally as an artist in his mid-20s.
“It probably is a copy after a print and it is pretty naive,” Mark Griffith-Jones, a Sotheby’s British art specialist, told the Guardian.
“He was very young. From an academic point of view it is interesting to find something of this date. Constable, quite famously, was a late developer.”
The collection also contains intimate portraits of Constable’s family, including a pencil sketch of his younger brother Abram, which is a precursor to a later oil paint portrait.
The two brothers were close and it was the younger’s willingness to step in and run the family’s milling and shipping businesses that afforded John the freedom to pursue his artistic career.
Abram also supported his brother’s family financially later in his life, as the artist’s works only received popular recognition after his death.
The portrait shows a handsome young Abram, who never married, with the fashionable haircut and sideburns for the time.
The sketch is thought to have survived as Abram was particularly close to the Mason family, whom he described in letters as 'almost my best friends in the County’.
The collection also contains a tender portrait of Constable’s cousin Jane Anne Inglis, nee Mason, which he drew when he visited her family in Colchester. “This is a particularly sensitive and really very beautiful pencil portrait study,” said Mr Griffith-Jones. “It is a really stunning work.”
The fourth newly-discovered work is a drawing of a thatched cottage that later became Constable’s only known etchings from this period.
Alongside the sketches and paintings, the scrapbook, which was made between 1794 and 1862, also contains engravings, oak leaves, poems, ditties and comments on contemporary events that shed light on the early family life of the great artist.
It was in his middle age that Constable evolved his masterly style and created his most celebrated works such as the Hay Wain and The Vale of Dedham.
He is most famous for his landscapes of the Dedham Vale area, on the Suffolk-Essex border where he grew up, and which is now known as Constable Country.