This beautifully observed oil sketch of a dilapidated shed is an exceptionally fine example of Constable’s naturalistic and highly personal approach to landscape painting, which helped establish his reputation as one of the most original artistic forces to emerge in the early nineteenth century.
The landscape of Dedham Vale on the Suffolk-Essex border provided the backdrop to Constable’s childhood and served him with a constant source of artistic inspiration. Writing to his great friend and mentor John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, on 23 October 1821, Constable confided ‘I should paint my own places best – Painting is but another word for feeling. I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter’ (cited in R.B. Beckett ed., John Constable’s Correspondence, Suffolk, 1968, VI, p. 78). Although Constable was born in the neighbouring village of East Bergholt, the village of Dedham held particular significance for him, since it was there that the young artist attended school and where his father, Golding Constable, owned the Mill. Furthermore, it was the village’s church, with its 130-foot tower, which served as a key landmark, punctuating the skyline, in so many of the artist’s views of the Vale.
In this composition, which is dominated by the Old Mill Shed, the viewer’s eye is taken through the open door and building where, bathed in sunlight, a young boy is shown crouched on a path with a gate and field beyond. Constable’s delight in the picturesque decay of his subject is evident in the attention he has given to depicting the warped timber and dishevelled thatching, as well as details such as the play of light on the open door and fall of water from the guttering. The picture could be seen as a valediction to Constable’s own ‘careless boyhood’ and a pictorial poem to the places that imbued him with a love of nature that would later translate into some of the most celebrated landscapes painted in the nineteenth century.
The sketch is dated by Graham Reynolds to 1816 (op. cit.), a key turning point in the artist’s life and career: the death of his father, Golding Constable, in that year brought Constable both financial independence, enabling him to finally marry his great love, Maria Bicknell, and the artistic freedom to abandon portrait commissions and commit himself to landscape painting. Interestingly, in a private communication with the current owner (c. 1993), prior to the publication of the 1996 catalogue, Reynolds suggested an alternative dating to 1812-13, when Constable spent long summers painting outdoors in the Stour Valley. Conal Shields, to whom we are grateful for confirming the attribution to Constable after inspection of the original, is inclined to agree with Reynolds’s earlier dating of the work but does not exclude the possibility of it having been executed in 1816.
It seems appropriate that this independent study, painted from life and which appears not to have been incorporated into any larger finished work, should have been given to Constable’s closest sister, Mary (1781-1865), the youngest of the artist’s three sisters. Mary, who addressed her brother as ‘Dearest Johnny’ in their correspondence, was dispatched to stay with Constable in his London lodgings in Charlotte Street in 1812, a time when the artist was enduring emotional turmoil caused by the apparent hopelessness of his love for Maria. Constable made a series of tender drawings of Mary from this period and she later sat with her sister Ann (1768-1854) for an engaging double portrait now in a private collection (c.1814). Following the death of their father, Mary moved to Flatford Mill with her youngest brother Abram, who assumed sole responsibility for the management of the family business.
Constable’s reverential study of nature and his surrounding world transformed the genre of landscape painting and inspired some of the most revolutionary artists of later generations, including Corot, Courbet, Monet and Van Gogh (fig. 1). As Lucian Freud put it at the time of the exhibition 'Constable: Le Choix de Lucian Freud', held at the Grand Palais in Paris, 2002-03, 'I may be quite wrong, but I can't see Van Gogh's Boots without Constable behind them. I don't mean it's an immediate link but, to me, that kind of interest, observation and indulgence are things that exist in Constable.'