This view, taken from a bend in the River Thames known as Battersea Reach, by present day Chelsea Harbour, shows old Battersea Bridge at the centre of the composition, with Battersea mill and St. Mary's Church to the right, and Chelsea Old Church beyond. The old wooden bridge at Battersea with nineteen narrow spans was designed by Henry Holland in 1771. It was later replaced by a wrought iron structure designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1885. Battersea horizontal mill was designed by Captain Stephen Hooper and built by Thomas Fowler in 1788 for grinding linseed, but was demolished in 1849. Constable sketched a detail of the mill in pencil from the opposite direction in August 1816 (private collection; G. Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, London, 1996, p. 220, no. 16.25, fig. 1285). St. Mary's stands on one of the earliest known consecrated sites on the south bank of the River Thames, the original structure dating from circa 800 A.D. The building depicted, which still stands today, was completed in 1777. Chelsea Old Church dates from the 13th century, with chapels to the north and south (originally privately owned) dating from circa 1325, and a nave and tower built in 1670. The church was bombed heavily during the Blitz of 1941 and services were held in the adjoining hospital until the south chapel was reopened in 1950, followed by the chancel in 1954.
The present work appears to be Constable's only oil painting on the Thames at Chelsea. Datable to circa 1818, it was painted during the interim period between Constable's settlement in London after his marriage to Maria Bicknell in 1816 (first at 63 Charlotte Street and later at 1 Keppel Street, Bloomsbury), and the couple's relocation to Hampstead in 1819. Constable had sketched Waterloo Bridge from near Whitehall Stairs in pencil in 1817 (private collection; Reynolds, 1984, p. 5, no. 17.5, fig. 3), the year in which the bridge was opened by the Prince Regent (later the subject of one of Constable's celebrated 'six footers'). In 1818, Constable also sketched Fulham Church from across the river (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) and Richmond Bridge (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), both in pencil (Reynolds, 1984, p. 21, nos. 18.21 and 18.24, figs. 49 and 51 respectively).
Squaring-up marks are faintly visible below the paint surface in this picture. This, along with the canvas' slightly unusual format, suggests that it may have been transferred from a same-size tracing study executed 'en plein air'. This novel and experimental method that Constable developed for gathering material involved laying tracing paper on a vertical pane of glass and tracing the contours of the scene, before then squaring up the design and transferring it to the same size of canvas in the studio. This working method would explain the lack of preparatory drawings, for few tracing paper sketches survive due to their fragile nature and possibly Constable's lack of future use for them.