The present watercolour is an exciting discovery and addition to Constable's oeuvre. The only known drawing executed in preparation for Constable's large watercolour, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1806, His Majesty's ship Victory in the memorable Battle of Trafalgar, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (fig. 1). The angle of the right hand ship and its perspective is close to that of the ship depicted on the right of the finished composition.
The attribution is supported by the inscription 'J. Constable' on the reverse, which appears to be in the hand of Archdeacon John Fisher. The Archdeacon was the artist's closest friend, the owner of major works by Constable. An identical inscription can be found as a pencil addition to a pen drawing by Constable in one of Fisher's own sketchbooks (private collection).
Constable made a series of drawings, mainly of shipping, during his voyage in the East Indiaman Coutts from London to Deal in April 1803, commanded by his father's friend Captain Torin. He left the ship shortly before 6 May when it sailed for China. Leslie records that there were about 130 in total which because 'The ship was such a scene of confusion, when I left her, that although I had done my drawings up very carefully, I left them behind.' The sketches were recovered. 47 of them are listed by G. Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, London, 1996, nos. 03.5-03.51. It seems likely that Constable used these drawings as the basis for the present sketch and the subsequent watercolour he painted after the Battle of Trafalgar.
Constable made the present drawing on a sheet of handmade laid writing paper consistent with English-made writing papers produced circa 1800. The group of drawings from Constable's time on the Coutts, are on several different white laid writing papers from a variety of makers. The number of drawings executed at this time and the range of paper used suggest that while he had taken some paper on board with him, he ran out and had to obtain more paper from other people on board.
Previously the present drawing was erroneously described as of hulks, the drawing does in fact depict two ships of the Royal Navy being made ready for war, the gun ports and ladder visible on the side of the ship and its sail billowing over the deck on the ship drawn on the right hand side. The ship on the left of the picture is a French frigate, a British Prize, now recommissioned into the Royal Navy. As in the exhibited watercolour there are discrepancies between the ships shown here and those known to have taken part in the battle. But Constable was used to relying on his memories of ships he had seen. Robert Leslie's edition of his father's Life of Constable, 1896, p. 20 states '... I remember a simple but valuable lesson of his to me as a boy upon the first principle to be observed in drawing the hull of a man-of-war. "Always think of it," he said, "and draw it first as a floating cask or barrel - and upon this foundation build up your ship..." As he said this, he rapidly evolved a stern view of a line of battleships ...'
The battle of Trafalgar had great symbolic significance after years of mixed fortunes in the wars with France. The large watercolour which Constable showed at the Royal Academy in 1806 (fig. 1) was one of his few attempts to practise a pictorial mode more highly regarded in the so-called academic hierarchy of genres, where landscape had a relatively minor place.
We are grateful to Peter Bower and Conal Shields for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.