This recently rediscovered, wonderfully fluid sketch of Leighton Hall in Lancashire is one of Constable’s earliest en plein air sketches in oil. It was executed during a tour of the Lake District in the autumn of 1806, which was one of the very few seasonal sketching tours that the artist made during his career and a key stimulus to his early artistic development. Constable only began habitually sketching outdoors in oil from circa 1808, a practice he continued until his death in 1837, and one that became a defining characteristic of his art.
Constable’s decision to undertake a sketching tour may have been in conscious emulation of Thomas Girtin’s intrepid visits to North Wales at the end of the previous century. He was a great admirer of the artist, who he praised as a fundamental figure in the revival of landscape painting in England, and later owned several of his works. While Girtin seems never to have visited the Lake District, the region had been a favourite resort of the great art patron and amateur artist, Sir George Beaumont and the diarist and landscape painter, Joseph Farington since the 1770s. Constable’s choice of destination may also have been motivated by financial considerations, since the trip was funded by a wealthy uncle, David Pike Watts, who was renting Storrs Hall.
This sketch probably predates Constable’s arrival in Kendal on 1 September. He left Manchester on 27 August (sketch of Old Salford Bridge in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). The coach route took him through Lancaster and Carnforth, and on to Milnthorpe. Leighton Hall, outside Yealand Conyers, is just off this route (now the A6). Constable is known to have stopped to visit George Gardner, the son of the portrait painter Daniel Gardner, who lived at Burton, just south of Kendal. The likelihood is that George took his friend to sketch in the park at Leighton (the viewpoint of the sketch is just inside the main gates) before they both travelled on to Kendal and the Lake District. After Kendal their first port of call was Storrs Hall, from where they both travelled on to Brathay Hall at the head of the lake in search of company, which was provided by the Hardens who were renting Brathay Hall. For Constable’s visit to the Hardens and a survey of his visit to the Lake District, see John Constable’s Correspondence, V, ed. R.B. Beckett, Suffolk Records Society, XI, 1967, pp. 1-9. John Harden’s wife Jessy kept a journal, in which she recorded on 8th September: ‘Mr Constable … came … went out with John … to sketch, he is the keenest at that employment I ever saw’ (Jessy’s Journal – The Journal of Jessy Harden 1804 to 1811, published by the Brathey Trust, 2015, p. 86); and on 14th September: ‘rained all day, so Mr Constable got some oil colours & painted a portrait of me’ (ibid., p. 87; untraced).
On his return, Constable exhibited three finished Lake District views in oil at the Royal Academy in 1807, View in Westmorland, Keswick Lake and Bow Fell, Cumberland (all untraced), followed by three more the following year. His 1807 View of Westmorland appears to have prompted the earliest critical response to his work: ‘The Artist seems to pay great attention to Nature, and in this picture has produced a bold effect’ (The St James’s Chronicle, 7-9 May).
In this sketch, Leighton Hall is shown nestled in a bowl of parkland against a backdrop of the Lake District hills. The profile of the peaks in the distance is unmistakable, starting from the left with Dow Crag, Coniston Old Man and going on to the Langdale Pikes. Towards the right can be seen the profile of the Fairfield Horseshoe and the distinctive lump of Red Screes with the long back of High Street at the right hand edge. The earliest records of Leighton Hall at Carnforth go back to 1246, when Adam d’Avranches had a fortified manor there. It was the seat of the Middleton family in the 17th century. In 1763, the Hall was rebuilt in the Adam style for George Towneley of Towneley Hall in Burnley. In the following century, it was sold to Richard Gillow, the grandson of Robert Gillow, the founder of the famous furniture business Gillow & Co. of Lancaster. Gillow refaced the house in the new Gothic style between 1822 and 1825. The Hall has since passed by descent in the Gillow family.
Leslie Paris and Ian Fleming-Williams commented that: ‘with one possible exception, a small oil of Langdale Pikes, he [Constable] does not appear to have painted landscape in oils during the tour’ (Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1991, p. 398, under no. 232). This sketch constitutes another important exception. Conal Shields observed that the painting technique of the present sketch is clearly derived from watercolour practice, with the medium-diluted pigments brushed at speed across the picture surface, and with many semi-transparent layers making optical mixtures rather than straightforward physical mixes of colour. The degree of attention paid to the sky as against the much lighter treatment of the mansion, which is the ostensible focus of the work, together with the fact that Constable has only begun the registration of cast shadows in the foreground (almost always a conspicuous feature of his work), suggest that he may have ended the exercise prematurely. As Shields commented: ‘there is here a palpable sense of the artist under pressure, responding in the limited time available to the complexity of the meteorological phenomena enveloping him with spontaneous modulation of established concepts and sheer pictorial inventiveness, devising and revising as his brush flew over the paper equivalents in paint for the substance and texture of what he thought he saw as well as embodying the movement of feelings engendered by the act of painting itself’ (private communication, 22 September 2020). Executed on the eve of Constable’s dedication to oil sketching, this work shows the artist already working with a new breadth and confidence, highlighting the importance of this early tour to his development.
We are grateful to Conal Shields for confirming the attribution, after first-hand inspection.