John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 Hampstead)
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John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 Hampstead)

Beached fishing boats with fishermen mending nets on the beach at Brighton, looking West

John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 Hampstead)
Beached fishing boats with fishermen mending nets on the beach at Brighton, looking West
with inscription 'Brighton Beach by/ John Constable I got/ this sketch from his son/ Captain Charles Constable/ Walter May.' and 'Bought this sketch from Mrs May/ 1897/ E. Hayes' (verso)
black chalk, pen and grey ink, grey and ochre wash, watermark '[WHA]TMAN/ [TURKE]Y MILL/ [18]21'
4 ½ x 7 1/8 in. (11.4 x 18.1 cm.)
The artist's son, Captain Charles Constable, from whom acquired by
Walter May.
E. Hayes (all the above according to inscriptions on the verso of the mount).
London, Wildenstein Galleries, Constable Centenary, 1937, no. 50, pl. XXIX.
Suffolk, Aldeburgh Festival, Drawings, 1948, no. 26.
British Arts Council, An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by John Constable, R.A., 1949, no. 50.
American Federation of the Arts, 1955, catalogue untraced.
San Diego, Museum of Fine Arts, 1959, catalogue untraced.
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Iona Ballantyne
Iona Ballantyne

Lot Essay

The Constable family first visited Brighton in May 1824, taking a house for six months at Western Place near the beach. The following year Maria and the children returned in August and remained until January 1826 and then between May and September 1828. Each time Constable would remain based in London and would come down to Brighton for regular, sometimes extended, visits.

Constable was initially disdainful of Brighton describing it in a letter to his friend Fisher as ‘the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its … everlasting voice, is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – “flys”. –and the beach is only Piccadilly … by the sea-side. … In short there is nothing here for the painter but the breakers - & sky – which have been lovely indeed and always varying. The fishing boats are picturesque but not so much so as the Hastings boats.’

Brighton, however, underneath the gloss of fashion, remained a working fishing town and as Constable became more familiar with the town his opinion changed. He became increasingly interested in the beach and the sea, the picturesque qualities of the vessels pulled up on the shore, the constantly changing atmospheric effects, as well as the people who made their living from the sea.

Initially Constable worked exclusively in oils, however by the end of August 1824, he began to make drawings as well. Some were highly finished watercolours or pen and ink or wash drawings, whilst others were more rapidly executed pencil studies, such as the present work. The breadth of handling as well as the variety of subjects amply demonstrates Constable’s deep enjoyment of the scenes. Interestingly, despite the numerous studies, Constable only executed one large-scale painting of the town; Marine Parade and Chain Pier, Brighton (London, Tate). It was possible that Constable intended to create a series of engravings of the town. He had recently met the publisher Henry Phillips in Brighton and conversations between the two men may well have inspired Constable to think about publishing his own work. Furthermore, in December 1824, the French picture dealer, John Arrowsmith engaged Constable ‘to make twelve drawings (to be engraved here and published in Paris)…about 10 or 12 inches…all complete compositions – all of boats or beach scenes’. (I. Fleming-Williams, Constable and his Drawings, London, 1990, p. 208).

During the 1820s there was great demand for beach scenes both in London and Paris and Arrowsmith must have been keen to take advantage of this. Constable enjoyed widespread popularity in France and the project would surely have been favourably received. Furthermore, the newly opened Royal Suspension Chain Pier allowed ferries from France to dock in Brighton for the first time, opening the town to French tourists, who might well have been keen to secure a memento of their visit. However, for some reason, the project was never completed.

Some of Constable’s studies of Brighton concentrate solely on the beach, whilst others, such as the present drawing, also shows glimpses of the town. It appears that the view depicts part of what was called East Cliff, with the distinctive five-bayed building on the left and The Ship Hotel to its right. This drawing also shows a glimpse in the lower left of Cissbury Ring, the Iron Age hill fort overlooking Worthing. There is a slightly larger drawing depicting the beach from slightly further along the promenade, which also shows Cissbury Ring, now in The Huntingdon, San Marino, California.

The series of drawings and watercolours that Constable produced as a result of his time in Brighton form a fascinating insight into the variety of working methods and technical abilities of one of the great masters of the period.

We are grateful to Ian Warrell for identifying the topography of this view.

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