'[Constable's painting] was never more perfect, perhaps never so perfect, as at this period of his life' - so said C.R. Leslie, John Constable's close friend and biographer, of the period the artist spent in Salisbury in 1820 (Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A., 1845, p. 78). Recently elected an Associate of the Royal Academy and married to the woman he had long courted, Maria Bicknell, Constable was in a buoyant mood when he arrived in Salisbury in July of 1820. He and Maria had come to spend 6 weeks visiting Constable's closest friend John Fisher at Leadenhall, his home in Salisbury Close: standing with its own grounds in the southwestern corner of town along the banks of the river Avon, Leadenhall was granted to Fisher by his uncle the Bishop of Salisbury in 1819. From the grounds as well as the windows of the house, Constable was afforded a number of picturesque views of the Cathedral, the river, and beyond, the hills of Harnham Ridge. The artist visited Salisbury on nine separate occasions between 1811 and 1829, and during those stays produced a large number of pencil sketches, oil sketches, and finished paintings.
Graham Reynolds has suggested that the viewpoint in the present painting looks northward from the water's edge in Fisher's garden. He compares the size of the trees to Salisbury Cathedral and Leydenhall from the River Avon (fig. 1; Reynolds no. 20.51, pl. 173), suggesting that this work probably dates to the same year. The perspective is perhaps most nearly replicated in a painting of Harnham Ridge (fig. 2; Reynolds no. 29.39, pl. 739), with its similarly high vantage point and swell of hills along the horizon, the river just visible along the lower edge of the work. That sketch, however, was likely painted during Constable's second long stay in Salisbury, in 1829, following the death of his beloved Maria from tuberculosis; though it is often difficult to distinguish between sketches from the two periods, paintings from 1829 are noticeably more melancholic in mood.
In contrast, this study repeats the same spirited mood as Constable's Hampstead sketches, with a rich impasto, lively brushwork, and judicious touches of reds, greens and whites scattered across the surface. As in his groundbreaking cloud studies from Hampstead Heath, in which the horizon is often eliminated entirely, here the focus of the sketch is the dramatic sunburst breaking through a foreboding cloud cover. Pure white paint is dragged in long, drybrush strokes across the page in imitation of the sudden blinding sunlight, which is reflected in the smaller dabs of white along the surface of the Avon. Capturing in paint the fleeting effects of light and weather was Constable's constant ambition; as he told Fisher, 'I have likewise made many skies and effects - for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, "he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge - yet he was born to cast a stedfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature". We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & color' (Beckett VI 1968, p. 74).