What this oil sketch of Salisbury Cathedral tells us about the life and art of John Constable
Constable visited friends in Salisbury on seven occasions and produced more than 300 images of the city and its surroundings — including this full-scale compositional sketch, treasured by his daughter Isabel and never previously seen at auction
John Constable is hailed, pretty much universally, as the most English of painters. Salisbury Cathedral, in turn, is described by many as the most English of cathedrals. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the former was so attracted to the latter.
Over the course of his life, Constable made seven separate visits to Salisbury and produced 300 images of the city and its surroundings — from small drawings executed on the spot to massive canvases painted at his London studio. Aside from his native Suffolk, there’s no place that he depicted more often, and the cathedral regularly formed part of the scene.
On 7 December, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, a stunning oil sketch never before offered at auction, will appear in the Old Masters Evening Sale at Christie’s in London.
Constable’s friendship with John Fisher
Constable’s connection with Salisbury was personal. As a young man in the late 1790s, he had struck up a friendship with John Fisher, the rector in Langham, a Suffolk village neighbouring his own. Constable was an ardent Anglican and Fisher a keen watercolourist, so it’s easy to see why, despite an age gap of almost 30 years, the two men bonded.
It was with a view to seeing him that Constable made his first visit to Salisbury, in 1811, as Fisher was now the city’s bishop.
Constable returned five years later, on honeymoon with his wife, Maria; and again in 1820 with his young family (two of his seven children now having been born).
Salisbury was a source of both happiness and inspiration for him, a home away from home. Constable became a close friend of the bishop’s nephew, also called John Fisher, who served as his uncle’s archdeacon. He even asked the younger Fisher to officiate at his wedding (at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields).
Whenever Constable travelled to Salisbury, he stayed with the archdeacon, who promised him ‘brushes, paints and canvas in abundance’ ahead of each trip.
Like his uncle, Fisher Junior was an important patron. In 1819, he purchased The White Horse, the first of Constable’s now-celebrated ‘six-footers’ — a series of views of Suffolk’s River Stour, painted on canvases six feet long.
Bishop Fisher commissions a view of Salisbury Cathedral from Constable
One year later, Bishop Fisher commissioned his first painting from Constable. His subject of choice was Salisbury Cathedral, as seen from the grounds of his house to the southeast. The artist had actually already captured this vista, in a chalk drawing of 1811 (housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum). He now did so again, in 1820, in an oil sketch (today found in the National Gallery of Canada).
Not long after he left Salisbury that year, Constable received a letter from the bishop’s daughter, Dolly, asking when he might deliver a painting made from that sketch: ‘Papa desires me to say he hopes you will finish… the view you took from our Garden of the Cathedral by the water side.’
Month after month passed, however, and still there was no painting. In a letter from Maria to her husband in May 1822, she mentions a visit — in Constable’s absence — paid by Bishop Fisher to his studio. ‘He rummaged out the Salisbury [sketch] and wanted to know what you had done,’ she wrote.
‘It was the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had on my easel,’ wrote Constable of the 1823 painting commissioned by Bishop Fisher
Maybe the delay had something to do with the artist’s heavy workload in the early 1820s, a time when he produced a number of large canvases, including The Hay Wain, perhaps his most famous picture.
Constable eventually exhibited Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1823. In a letter to Fisher Junior shortly after the opening, he suggested that the scene’s compositional complexity may have been behind the delay in execution. ‘It was the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had on my easel,’ he wrote.
The bishop — who is depicted with his wife by a gate on the bottom left — went on to take possession of the work. Though largely happy with it, he disliked the dark clouds behind the spire.
A second commission for Fisher’s daughter — but ‘with a more serene sky’
Later in 1823, he wrote to Constable asking if he would paint the scene once more, this time as a wedding present for his second daughter, Elizabeth. She would be making her marital home in London and wanted a recollection of Salisbury on her walls. ‘I wish to have a more serene sky,’ Fisher signed off.
Relying on the 1811 drawing and the 1820 sketch, as well as his own memories, Constable set to work. The picture coming to auction is the full-scale, compositional sketch — in oils on canvas — which served as the model for the ‘wedding’ painting. (It now hangs at the Huntington Library and Art Museum in San Marino, California.)
As requested, Constable omitted the black clouds. Another change from Bishop Fisher’s painting is that the spectacular arch of trees which frames our view of the cathedral — an invention of the artist’s — is now even thicker, with more branches and tendrils. The positioning of the furthest of the four cows has also been modified.
It is interesting to note that the oil sketch differs from both of the finished paintings with the inclusion of a cluster of trees blocking our view of the chapter house.
All these tweaks attest to Constable’s restless pursuit of compositional perfection.
What almost all of the cathedral views from Fisher’s garden share is a set of motifs that have come to define the quintessentially British landscape: trees, cattle, a water meadow, clouds in the sky, and a striking piece of architecture.
After Constable’s death in 1837, his children sold a large number of his pictures — but his daughter Isabel kept this sketch
Bishop Fisher died in 1825, aged 77. Maria Constable passed away three years later, from tuberculosis, when barely in her forties. Her devastated husband was, in the words of his biographer Charles Leslie, ‘prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts’ forever after.
At the suggestion of Archdeacon Fisher, who thought a visit to paint the cathedral anew might be therapeutic, he travelled to Salisbury twice in 1829. These would be his final two visits — and result in his last picture of its cathedral, 1831’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (acquired for the British nation by Tate for £23.1 million in 2013).
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After his death in 1837, his children sold a large number of his pictures, but his daughter Isabel kept the sketch now coming to auction. She ended up being his last surviving child, and on her own death in 1888 bequeathed some 400 works from her father’s studio to the V&A — but this sketch was not among them.
It appears she was so fond of it that she wished to keep it in the family, and so gifted the work to her nephew, the artist Hugh Constable. Although he eventually sold it, the picture has never appeared at auction before, until now.