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

Study of clouds over a landscape

John Constable, R.A. (East Bergholt, Suffolk 1776-1837 Hampstead)
Study of clouds over a landscape
oil on paper, laid down on panel
8 ¼ x 11 in. (20.8 x 30 cm.)
(Probably) Ernest Alfred Colquhoun (1852-1930), London, and by inheritance to
Mrs. E. Colquhoun, 77 Redcliffe Gardens, London, by 1961.
Anonymous sale [The Property of a Lady]; Sotheby's, London, 22 March 1972, lot 80, illustrated, as 'on board' (£2,800 to Mrs. T. Hinde).
with Richard Green, London, where acquired on 11 December 1974 by the following
with Agnew's, London, 1975.
Montgomery “Montie” H.W. Ritchie (1910-1999), Larkspur, Douglas County, Colorado, on long-term loan to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tennessee, from 1996.
R. Hooze, L'Opera completa di Constable, Milan, 1979, p. 151, no. 646, under 'Opere dubbie'.
G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, London 1984, I, p. 98, no. 21.130; II, pl. 332.
Amarillo Museum of Art, Achievement in Art: The Collection of Montgomery H.W. Ritchie, 2017, no. 32.
Sale room notice
We are grateful to Annie Lyles, Conal Shields and Tim Wilcox for all independently confirming the attribution to Constable after first-hand inspection, and for identifying the present view as Harnam Ridge, Salisbury. A revised dating of either 1820 or 1829 has also been suggested.

Please note that there is an addition of 2.5 cm. along the lower horizontal edge, which is assumed to have been made by the artist and therefore integral to the work.

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Lot Essay

"It will be difficult to name a class of Landscape, in which the sky is not the 'key note', the standard of 'Scale' and the chief 'Organ of Sentiment'...The sky is the 'source of light' in nature – and governs everything...Their difficulty in painting both as to composition and execution is very great" (Constable, quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds in a letter to John Fisher, 23 October 1821; see R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constable's Correspondence: The Fischers, VI, Ipswich, 1967, pp. 76-7).

Dating from circa 1821, this exquisite cloud study almost certainly belongs to the series of en plein air sketches painted by Constable on Hampstead Heath between 1820 and 1823. Hampstead was then little more than a village, and its elevated position to the north of London provided commanding views in every direction and ample material to satisfy the artist's fascination with landscape and the effects of light. Beginning in 1819, Constable rented a house there for the summer almost annually, until he became a permanent resident in 1827. The meteorological studies that he produced in that period mark a new fascination with the varying conditions and formations of the sky and a radical shift in his approach. Several Hampstead oil sketches were completed towards the end of October 1820, but it was not until the following summer that Constable was able to devote himself fully to his study of the sky.

In 1821, Constable took lodgings with his family at No. 2 Lower Terrace and proceeded to divide his time between Hampstead and his Bloomsbury residence in Keppel Street. From the house at Lower Terrace, he had easy access to the western end of the Heath, and there he set about carefully documenting the structure of the clouds in an almost obsessive manner. Writing to John Fischer in October of that year, Constable professed "I have done a good deal of skying...That landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition – neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids" (R.B. Beckett, ed., loc. cit.). Indeed, 1821 was to be one of his most productive years in sketching, and this concentrated period of study proved fundamental to the development of his large-scale exhibition pictures, such as the View on the Stour near Dedham, exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year (see G. Reynolds, op. cit. no. 22.1).

Begun as a means of improving his landscape paintings, Constable's meteorological studies would become for him both a subject of scientific curiosity and an emotional obsession. It is clear that he relished the artistic challenges inherent in capturing this most elusive and transient of subjects, and he was scrupulous in his approach, often annotating his sketches with the precise location, date, time of day, and prevailing weather conditions. On a sketch dated "Sepr. 10. 1821.," for example, Constable noted "Noon. gentle Wind at West. Very sultry after a heavey [sic] shower with thunder. accumulated thunder clouds passing slowly away to the south East. very bright and hot. all the foliage sparkling and wet" (Cloud study with tree tops and building, private collection; Constable's Clouds, exhibition catalogue, Edinburgh and Liverpool, 2000, no. 36). Constable would often paint on consecutive days, and sketches surviving from the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th of September 1821 show that his approach could be as varied as the weather (ibid., nos. 36-9). On occasion, he would even execute several studies in a single day, for instance on 27 September 1821, when he made sketches at ten in the morning, at noon, and at four in the afternoon (G. Reynolds, op. cit., nos. 21.53-5), as if gathering proof not only of the different cloud formations created by the fluctuating weather conditions, but also of the speed of their transition. Constable sought to gain a scientific understanding of these complex cloud configurations in order to depict them as accurately as possible; he followed contemporary studies in meteorology, notably Thomas Forester's Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena (1813) and Luke Howard's essay on the classification of clouds in The Climate of London (1818-20).

In this study, quick, liquid brushstrokes deftly convey billowing clouds of blue, white, and grey, while sheets of rain, concentrated beneath the clouds in the lower right quadrant of the composition, are rendered in short, soft marks with a drier brush. The distant hills and woods divide the work into separate areas of land and sky. The predominance of the latter underscores Constable's preoccupation with the shifting patterns of the clouds, rather than the vegetation beneath, and prefigures the so-called "classic" or "pure" cloud studies of 1822, which focus almost exclusively on the sky. The landscape is not fully resolved: the warm red-brown ground, left substantially underpainted in the upper left corner and in parts of the foreground, reveals the influence of 17-century Dutch landscapes, such as those in the magnificent collection of Sir George Beaumont, 7th Baronet (1753-1827), which the artist had had occasion to study as a young man. The energy of the richly-textured brushwork conveys the speed of the artist's hand, as Constable hastens to record this fleeting moment, and reveals an artist wholly confident in his mastery of light and technique.

The study is not inscribed or dated, and, in 1979, Robert Hooze included it in a list of paintings for which, he felt, the authenticity could not be definitively proven. It was subsequently accepted by Graham Reynolds as one of a large number of cloud studies made circa 1821.

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