This large and important drawing is one of two known to have been executed in Helmingham Park in July 1800. The subject clearly inspired Constable who relished the sinuous form of the trees, rising up above the viewer and framing the central bridge. This highly finished work is one of the few dated drawings from this period and its continuing importance to the artist is demonstrated by the fact that over twenty years later Constable was to use it in the preparation of four oil paintings.
Inland from Southwold, Helmingham Hall and its park were the property of the Tollemache family, the Earls of Dysart. Later, in 1807, Constable was introduced to the 6th Earl Dysart and this led to a string of commissions, but in 1800 he would haveneeded special permission to work there. The site obviously had special qualities that appealed to the artist, as on 25 July he wrote excitedly to his friend John Dunthorne at Bergholt:
'Here I am quite alone amongst the Oaks and solitudes of Helmingham Park. I have taken quiet possession of the parsonage finding it quite emty [sic]. Woman comes up from the farm house (here I eat) and makes the bed; and I am left at liberty to wander where I please during the day. There are an abundance of fine trees of all sorts; though the place upon the whole affords good objects [rather] than fine scenery, but I can badly judge yet what I may have to shew You. I have made one or two drawings that may be useful' (R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constable's Correspondence II: Early friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable), Ipswich, 1964, p. 25).
The drawing probably belonged to Constable's first biographer, his friend and fellow Royal Academician, C.R. Leslie who wrote, after quoting the above letter, that 'Two of these drawings, dated July 23rd and 24th, one in my possession, they show that he at that time possessed a true sense of the beautiful in composition' (Leslie, loc. cit.). The drawing dated 24 July is untraced. There is an even larger drawing in Leeds City Art Gallery showing the same twisted tree on the right together with the tree with interlocking trunks to its left. The Leeds drawing is squared for transfer and was probably also used for the oil paintings.
The oil paintings consist of two finished works and two oil sketches. In chronological order, as set out by Graham Reynolds, they are; 1.) that in a private collection (Constable, 1984, p. 218, no. 30.2, pl. 771), an oil sketch that, despite its listing under 1830 Reynolds dates to circa 1823-6 (it could even be the large sketch of Helmingham Dell admired by Sir George Beaumont in 1823); 2.) that painted 1825-6 for James Pulham of Woodbridge (fig. 1. Constable, 1984, pp. 174-5, no. 26.21, 1830, pl. 630), closest in size and format to no. 30.2; 3.) the oil sketch in the Louvre (Constable, 1984, p. 218, no. 30.3, pl. 775) which is larger and was presumably painted in preparation for 4.) that painted 1829-30 for James Carpenter but withheld and now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Constable, 1984, pp. 217-8, no. 30.1, pl. 770) and of much the same size as the Louvre sketch.
The twisted tree on the right can still be seen, wider in girth, in the park but the wooden footbridge was replaced by a stone one in 1815; despite this it still appears as a wooden bridge in the oil paintings. In addition it has been suggested (Parris, et al., 1976, p. 44, under no. 21) that a study of ash and other trees in the Victoria and Albert Museum was made a little further upstream, perhaps during the same summer, but Reynolds dates it to 1803 (Constable, 1996, p. 53, no. 03.61, 1803, pl. 218).
Ian Fleming-Williams, having pointed out that the drawing was done in the summer after Constable had been studying in Fuseli's life classes at the Royal Academy Schools, adds, 'it is interesting to note how closely Constable's pencil-line resembles that of Henry Fuseli in the studies from life the Swiss artist was making at this time...' (Fleming-Williams, op. cit., 1976, p. 18).
This drawing was formerly in the collection of G.D. Lockett, who from 1959 began to form an important collection of English drawings and watercolours. Francis Hawcroft, writing in 1970, when surveying the collection states that amongst the 'most outstanding' of his major acquisitions, was a 'View of Helmingham Dell by Constable' (F. Hawcroft, op. cit., 1970, p. 7).