Painted circa 1832, this picture is a recently rediscovered version of a work of the same dimensions formerly in the collection of Paul Mellon, and now at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (see fig. 1). A third variant of the composition, a fine plein-air sketch for the two finished versions, measuring 5½ x 8 1/8 in., was sold at Christie's London in 2001. As Anne Lyles has pointed out, it was not uncommon for Constable to paint more than one version of popular cabinet-size pictures, such as the Yarmouth and Harwich subjects he repeated around 1819-22 (see G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, nos. 20.6 -20.9, and nos. 22.36 - 22.38), and the versions of Hampstead Heath with London in the Distance (see Constable, catalogue for the exhibition at the Tate, London, 1991, nos. 127 - 129). The exhibited version (1830) of the latter subject, now in Glasgow, is illustrated as fig.2.
The Yale version of the present composition was engraved in mezzotint by David Lucas and published in 1845 as a supplement to his English Landscape Scenery (A. Shirley, Mezzotints by David Lucas after Constable, 1930, no.48). It is the Yale picture which has generally been identified with the artist's Sir Richard Steele's Cottage, Hampstead, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832 (no.147). That picture, described by the Morning Post as a small oil, is at the furthermost point, in terms of scale, from Constable's chief exhibit of that year, the much-delayed The Opening of Waterloo Bridge seen from Whitehall Stairs, June 18th 1817, measuring 53 x 86½ in., now in Tate Britain (see fig.3).
Thomas Rought, the earliest known owner of the present picture, was a prominent London dealer with premises on Regent Street, who handled several other important works by Constable, including The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (private collection, on loan to the National Gallery, London). Among Rought's most important clients was Joseph Gillott, the noted Manchester industrialist who, in 1853, added the present picture to the important collection of British pictures that he had already formed. Gillott owned a large number of works by Turner, and several other significant pictures by Constable including Weymouth Bay (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Gillott's collection was sold in these Rooms from 19 April to 3 May 1872, for the remarkable sum of £170,000.
The view in the present picture is taken from Hampstead Road (now Haverstock Hill), looking down Eton Road, with the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral and the City of London in the distance. Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), whose cottage is on the right, was an essayist, dramatist, journalist and Whig politician, as well as chief instigator of and contributor to, with his friend Joseph Addison, The Tatler, 1709-11, and The Spectator, 1711-13.
Constable first took lodgings in Hampstead, then just a village north of London, in 1819, and returned there for each summer - with the exception of that of 1824 - until 1827, when he became a resident by taking a lease on No. 6 Well Walk, his home for the next six years. The elevated, airy position was beneficial for his wife Maria's health and, with commanding views over London and the surrounding countryside, provided ample material for the artist's fascination with landscape and the effects of light. The series of cloud - or, more technically, 'meteorological' - studies he began painting in crayon and then in oils, circa 1819-22, were unprecedented. Of the view from the windows at the back of Well Walk, in 1827 Constable wrote to his great friend John Fisher 'Our little drawing Room commands a view unrivalled in Europe - from Westminster Abbey to Gravesend - the doom [sic] of St Paul's in the Air - realizes Michael Angelo's Idea on seeing that of the Pantheon - "I will build such a thing in the Sky"'.