In general, we wish for an upgrade, confirmation that a work is, in fact, the hand of a specific artist, a ‘fortune’ rather than a ‘fake.’ But it can go the opposite way, as existing attributions are overturned. The Way to the Farm is an intriguing example of such a change.
Attribution is a hugely important, and often hotly contested, subject in art history. It is an aspect of the market that garners a huge amount of attention, in part due to the dramatic effect it can have on prices. It has also become prevalent in the public consciousness, where there is a strong appetite for content on the subject, from the long-standing Antiques Road Show to more recent favourites such as Fake or Fortune and Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, where experts try to identify treasures that have been previously missed. In general, we wish for an upgrade, confirmation that a work is, in fact, the hand of a specific artist, a ‘fortune’ rather than a ‘fake.’ But it can go the opposite way, as existing attributions are overturned. The Way to the Farm is an intriguing example of such a change.
This painting was long thought to be the work of John Constable, and was exhibited as such in exhibitions including A Centenary Memorial Exhibition of John Constable, R.A. his origins and influence at Mr Wildenstein’s Gallery in 1937. The current re-attribution to his youngest son, Lionel Constable, was only confirmed in 1982, when it was selected to be shown in an exhibition organised by Tate to promote Lionel’s work in its own right.
The journey to this re-assessment had its beginnings in the preparation for John Constable’s bicentenary exhibition, staged by Tate in 1976. When sifting through large volumes of work to make the final shortlist for the exhibition, there were a selection of works, attributed to John, that didn’t seem to quite work within his oeuvre. Within the exhibition, this was navigated by the inclusion of a ‘friends and followers’ section, and more in-depth work was done in the period following. Lionel’s interest in photography helped this process along, as researchers were able to marry photographs with compositions, using details like levels of tree growth to confirm that they were from the same date. This documentary evidence allowed a group of works to be confidently attributed to Lionel, and from this group an idea of his approach developed from which point a more stylistic assessment could be utilised on other works, and further attributions made by the curator’s considered eye.
The Way to the Farm was able to be identified using documentary evidence, as there is a photograph by Lionel showing the same farmhouse and poplar tree, from the opposite side, and happily fits with a considered stylistic assessment of Lionel’s distinctive yet modest character as a painter. There are stylistic similarities to his father, yet he paints more thinly and delicately, in lighter colour and generally favours a specific range of compositions. As an artist, he is an unusual figure, apparently committed to his art, he generated lots of work and exhibited as a professional at the Royal Academy, yet it was not his profession, and so he was able to give it up when he chose, meaning his career only lasted eight short years and ended in his mid-twenties. He seemed to lack interest in contemporary art trends, and instead appears to have taught himself to paint almost entirely through close study of his father’s early work.