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Woodland landscape

Woodland landscape
oil on board
14 3⁄4 x 24 3⁄4 in. (37.5 x 63 cm.)
Private collection, until 2010.
Private collection, UK, 2010-2014.
with Lowell Libson, London, 2015, from whom acquired.

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Clementine Sinclair
Clementine Sinclair Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

This charming woodland scene was unknown to Constable scholars until recently, when it was recognised as being closely related to a similar, albeit smaller and more highly finished painting by the artist, Edge of a Wood of circa 1816 (fig. 1; Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario; G. Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1996, no. 02.1, where dated 1802, but now re-dated to 1815-16 and identified as Reynolds no. 16.2). Both pictures seem to show the same stretch of Suffolk woodland, and both include a similar donkey with her foal, as well as the same red cloaked figure collecting firewood. They are of particular interest in marking an intriguing moment in Constable’s mid-career when he had developed a more ‘finished’ style for his exhibition pictures, sometimes painted in the open air, and – in the case of these two works - also closely imitating the style and character of the work of his predecessor, fellow-Suffolk artist Thomas Gainsborough whose art he greatly admired.
Until his marriage and permanent move to London in 1816, Constable would usually spend long summers at his parents’ house in East Bergholt, sometimes undertaking local commissions but more often sketching close to home, gathering new material for his exhibition canvases. He sometimes started work on these whilst still in Suffolk (in 1802 his father acquired the lease on a building in the village for Constable’s use as a studio), but would then refine and finish them in London over the winter, submitting them to the Academy exhibitions the following spring.
In the winter of 1815-16, however, Constable altered this practice. His mother had died earlier in the year and when in the autumn of 1815 his father also began to show signs of serious ill health, the artist decided to spend the entire winter in East Bergholt, with just the occasional visit to London. Rather than working in his studio on the High Street, it seems likely that Constable would have set up a painting room in the family house during this period so as to be close to his father, and indeed we know that two paintings he made earlier that summer, Golding Constables Flower Garden and Golding Constables Kitchen Garden 1815 (both Ipswich Museum and Art Galleries; Reynolds, op. cit, nos. 15.23 and 15.24) were painted by him from rooms at the back of East Bergholt House. It was presumably also here, in a room in the house, that during the winter of 1815-16 Constable worked on the two exhibition canvases he was to send in to the Academy exhibition the following year, A Wheatfield and A Wood: Autumn.
A Wheatfield, the whereabouts of which was unknown to Constable scholars until 1988-9 and is now in the Clark Art Institute of Art in Williamstown (Reynolds, no. 16.1), seems largely to have been painted by Constable on the spot during August and early September 1815, although certain elements – such as the figures and highly detailed plants and foliage in the foreground – would surely have been added by him in his painting room. The identification of A Wood: Autumn, meanwhile, was only made as recently as 2005 when Edge of a Wood was re-dated to c. 1815-16 (and very plausibly suggested as the missing 1816 exhibit A Wood; Autumn) following the discovery by Jennifer Thompson of an oil study of two donkeys in the Philadelphia Museum of Art dated 29 Feb 1816 (fig. 2) closely related to those in the left-hand foregrounds of the Toronto picture and the present work, Woodland Landscape (J.A. Thompson, ‘A rediscovered oil sketch by John Constable’, Burlington Magazine, CXLVII, Sept 2005, pp. 608-12).
Constable only rarely painted autumn landscapes. Indeed according to his biographer C.R. Leslie, Constable once placed a violin on a patch of green lawn to demonstrate to his patron Sir George Beaumont that brown autumnal tints were not appropriate (as his traditionally-minded patron believed) for summer landscapes such as Constable himself painted (C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 1951 edition, ed. J. Mayne, p. 114). Edge of a Wood (A Wood: Autumn), and this related compositional study Woodland Landscape, are therefore particularly unusual and indeed seem to be the first fully elaborated autumn subjects that Constable had attempted by this date. They were to be followed by just a handful of other autumnal pictures later in his career, the Helmingham Dell subjects of circa 1826 and 1830 (Reynolds, nos. 26.21, 30.1, 30.2 and 30.3) and the Cenotaph of 1836 (London, National Gallery; Reynolds, no. 36.1), the latter showing a grove of trees at the Leicestershire residence of Sir George Beaumont.
Why would Constable decide to paint an autumn landscape in 1816? The immediate answer is that, untypically, he was in Suffolk throughout the autumn in 1815, and had every opportunity to make sketches outdoors at that time and, given the good weather, there is every evidence that he did so. On 19 October he wrote to his fiancée Maria Bicknell: ‘I have really been every day intending to write to you but I have been so much out, endeavouring to catch the last of this beautifull [sic] year, that I have neglected almost every other duty’ (R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constables Correspondence: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell [Mrs Constable], Ipswich 1964, II, p. 156). Even as late as 3 December he told Maria in another letter that the previous day had been: ‘so very mild that I went painting in the field from a donkey that I wanted to introduce in a little picture’ – some three months, as it happens, before he painted the study of donkeys he was to use in Edge of a Wood (A Wood: Autumn) and in Woodland Landscape.
There is, however, another good reason why Constable might have chosen to paint an autumn landscape at this particular juncture in his life. He had always admired the work of fellow landscapist Thomas Gainsborough, and seems at this date still to have favoured the artist’s early work based on Dutch masters such as Ruisdael and Hobbema and notable for its careful level of finish. Indeed, there is one particular early landscape by Gainsborough which Constable knew well, the view of Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk (London, National Gallery), which his maternal uncle David Pike Watts had acquired at some stage between 1808 and 1814, and which Constable would often have seen when visiting his uncle at his house in London, at Portland Place. Pike Watts also lent Cornard Wood to the British Institution in 1814 for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Gainsborough, Hogarth and Wilson and Zoffany, an exhibition we know Constable visited.
Indeed, it seems that Constable painted his 1816 Academy exhibit, Edge of a Wood ( A Wood; Autumn), together with its related compositional study, A Woodland, with Gainsborough’s Cornard Wood uppermost in his mind. Although, as Hugh Belsey points out, commentators neither now or then seem to have highlighted the fact that Cornard Wood is an autumn scene, this is of course how viewers – including Pike Watts and Constable himself – would have interpreted it; not only is the foliage distinctly autumnal in colour but the figures busily collecting firewood and sand are surely stocking up on supplies of these materials given winter is fast approaching.
Constable’s inclusion of two donkeys at the left of both compositions, even though based on a sketch made from the life, closely echoes the two creatures in Cornard Wood, whilst the red-cloaked figure gathering firewood similarly echoes a figure tying up a bundle of twigs in Gainsborough’s picture on the left. Interestingly, this same rather generalised and archaising red-cloaked figure with black hat appears in Constable’s earlier exhibition painting, A Church Porch, East Bergholt of 1810 (London, Tate Britain) and seems to have been deployed by him when wishing to invoke associations with eighteenth-century literature or artistic prototypes. Its inclusion in these two autumn woodland landscapes may similarly indicate that Constable wished them to be read as paying homage to eighteenth-century representations of these scenes (and via those, to earlier Dutch prototypes) and specifically to Gainsborough’s Cornard Wood.
Indeed Constable may even have been hoping to flatter his uncle by directly imitating this, one of the most prized paintings in his collection, and to prove to him (in the light of his uncle’s complaints on this issue) that he was capable of producing a picture with as much careful ‘finish’ as his predecessor. He was also well aware that Pike Watts, like Beaumont, favoured pictures presented under what his uncle termed ‘the admired October tints’ (letter from Pike Watts to Constable dated 2 Oct 1815, cited in R.B. Beckett, op. cit., 1966, IV, p. 44). If so, the gamble paid off, as Pike Watts decided to purchase Constable’s Wood: Autumn from the 1816 Academy exhibition.
It has been suggested that the stretch of woodland shown in Edge of a Wood (A Wood: Autumn), and thus also in A Woodland Landscape, might be somewhere in Helmingham Park just outside Ipswich, the seat of Constable’s patrons the Earls of Dysart (the Tollemache family). Certainly Constable had sketched there when a young man, and was to produce a number of paintings of Helmingham Dell in later years based on an important early drawing made in the park. However, there is no record that he visited Helmingham around this date, nor did he have any outstanding commissions with the Tollemache family which might have necessitated a visit there at this time. Indeed, given his desire to stay close to his ailing father, it seems just as likely that the woods shown in these two paintings were local to East Bergholt.
Unlike The Wheatfield, however, these two woodland scenes were probably painted by Constable chiefly indoors. Woodland Landscape is painted on millboard and also has extensive pinholes around its edges, both of which features - were it to have been painted before 1816 – would tend to point to plein-air work but which by 1816 are less conclusive indicators. Indoors or outdoors, plein-air or studio work, both paintings nevertheless reveal the careful attention paid to ‘finishing’ which one associates with Constable’s style in the period 1814-17, refined through outdoor work and direct observation but also strongly mediated through Gainsborough.
We are grateful to Anne Lyles for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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