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Constable Uncovered On British TV

August 10, 2023
A portrait of the painter John Constable in a black suit with a white shirt sitting in a chair against red drapes

John Constable by Ramsay Richard Reinagle

The new UK Channel 4 show Millionaire Hoarders is a bit like Antiques Roadshow, but instead, the experts come to you; that is, they come to you if you happen to live in a historic castle. Simon Houison-Craufurd is the laird of Craufurdland Castle, a 600-acre estate located about 25 miles south of Glasgow, and has been in the Craufurd family since the thirteenth century. Simon lives there with his wife, Adity, and their two young daughters. The show’s specialists had a look around to offer insight into what the family might have on their walls or in their closets that they may have forgotten about. The show’s specialists found a letter written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns and a hotel guest book signed by Charles Dickens, which Simon and Adity sold for £19,000 (or $24,000). But they also discovered an early nineteenth-century landscape that seemed uncannily similar to works by the great English painter John Constable. After six months of research, specialist Ronnie Archer-Morgan confirmed the work as a genuine Constable, giving it an estimate of £2 million (or $2.5 million). The Houison-Craufurd family plans to sell the work, which would do them some good. Despite their castle and titles, Simon and Adity are struggling a little bit.

Simon’s ancestor, Sir Reginald Crawford, was sheriff of Ayr under King David I of Scotland and was the uncle of the Scottish hero William Wallace. Craufurdland Castle dates to the sixteenth century, with extensive renovations, remodelings, and extensions made throughout the generations, most recently in the 1980s. But some aristocratic families, despite centuries of wealth and power, can no longer afford to maintain their extensive estates. From an outsider’s perspective, countries like the United Kingdom that still have officially recognized systems of nobility must have many people enjoying their leisure time living off generational wealth. However, the reality is a little bit more complicated than that. Britain has an entire class of people living in what has euphemistically been called “genteel poverty”. These are people with titles and lands, members of the upper class since birth, yet their estates and palaces are in complete disrepair, and the families live in debt. Many aristocratic families have held their titles since the days of King Richard the Lionheart, yet today, they can’t afford to have their wallpaper replaced. To support themselves, many use their houses as event spaces, rent parts of their castles as bed-and-breakfasts, and host hunting trips on their lands. The UK’s Historic Houses Association estimates that 60% of the country’s historic houses use these fundraising efforts, as well as tours and weddings. The Craufurds have tried this, yet they still struggle to raise the £100,000 necessary to maintain the property every year.

The newfound Constable was previously brought to an auction house ten years ago for an appraisal for insurance purposes. They dismissed it as a fake. Though the painting is entitled Old Bridge over the Avon, this is likely a misnomer. Archer-Morgan identified a bridge that matches the appearance of the one in the Constable painting, but it crosses the Thames in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Archival records show that Constable was in Abingdon in the 1820s when Constable likely produced the landscape. Family papers and letters show that the Craufurds acquired the painting in 1918 from John Postle Heseltine, an Old Masters collector and dealer who frequently dealt in Constable’s work. After being given this news, Simon remarked, “It’s funny because it’s a painting that I have seen I don’t know how many times and I have never actually paid any attention to it”. The painting has more forensic tests to undergo, but things seem optimistic. Should Simon and Adity choose to sell the work, they would have enough money to maintain Craufurland and pass it on to their daughters.

Several other previously forgotten works by British artists have been uncovered in the past year. Most recently, a portrait kept in storage at the National Maritime Museum was attributed to Thomas Gainsborough last month.