This spirited sketch was used in the preparation for one of Constable’s celebrated ‘Six-Footers’ showing Chain Pier, Brighton, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827 and is now at Tate Britain, London (fig. 1). The sketch was kept in the artist’s studio until his death in 1837, when it passed to his daughter Isabel, before being offered for sale at Christie’s in 1892. It later formed part of the distinguished Chéramy and Hatvany collections, when it was heralded as anticipating Impressionism in its truth to nature and in the spontaneity of its handling.
Constable planned eleven large-scale canvases, which have become known as his ‘Six-Footers’, between 1819 and 1837, the last of which was never finished. These monumental works, which defined his artistic maturity and secured his professional reputation, can be divided into two distinct groups: the first series of six works, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825, all focus on the Stour Valley and include notable works such as The White Horse (1819; New York, Frick Collection) and The Hay Wain (1821; London, National Gallery); while the second, slightly less cohesive group, which he worked on between 1827 and 1837, tackle subjects beyond the borders of his native Suffolk, including Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831; London, Tate Britain; acquired in 2013 in partnership with Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, National Galleries of Scotland, and The Salisbury Museum) and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832; New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). Chain Pier, Brighton (1827; London, Tate Britain) was the first painting to be executed in the second series and constitutes the only picture on a monumental scale that Constable produced in Brighton, or indeed of any marine subject.
Constable moved his wife Maria and their four children into lodgings in Brighton in May 1824 so that she might benefit from the sea air, and the family returned there at regular intervals until her death in 1828. The old fishing town was fast developing into a fashionable seaside resort at that time, partly driven by its association with the Prince Regent, now George IV, who had remodelled the Royal Pavilion in an extravagant Orientalist style. Constable’s first impressions of the resort were far from favourable; he described it in a letter to his great friend and mentor John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, as ‘Piccadilly … by the sea-side’ (R.B. Beckett ed., John Constable’s Correspondence [JCC], Suffolk, 1968, VI, p. 171). The Chain suspension pier, or the ‘dandy jetty’, which forms the principal subject of the exhibited picture, was constructed to supply a landing dock for steam packets arriving from Dieppe and opened in 1823, the year before Constable’s arrival.
Constable was meticulous in the planning of his large-scale works, each of which relied on a varying combination of en plein air pencil drawings, oil sketches, compositional studies and finally full-scale oil sketches. Chain Pier is unusual in that it is the only ‘Six-Footer’ for which Constable chose to employ a half-scale sketch (fig. 2; oil on canvas, 23¾ x 38 7/8 in.; Wilstach Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art), rather than a full-scale one, before embarking on the exhibition picture. While the finished picture was not exhibited at the Academy until 1827, a panoramic pencil drawing of Marine Parade and Chain Pier, Brighton (London, Victoria & Albert Museum), which can be dated to 1824 (since it includes buoys linked by chains to the pier-head, which were destroyed in a storm in November 1824 and never replaced), shows that he started exploring the idea almost immediately on his arrival in Brighton. This oil sketch, along with two other oil sketches of Brighton Beach, with Fishing Boat and Crew (fig. 3; oil on paper, 9 5/8 x 11¾ in.; London, Victoria & Albert Museum) and Brighton Beach (oil on paper, laid on canvas, 9 3/8x 11½ in.; New Zealand, Dunedin Public Art Gallery), and a pencil sketch of A Brighton Lugger (pencil on paper, 7 x 10 in.; private collection), are all likely to date from that same year. While the boat in this oil sketch does not feature in the finished painting, the half-scale oil sketch in Philadelphia shows that Constable had experimented with including it in the right foreground of the composition, but had ultimately abandoned it in the final painting in favour of a more open expanse of water. He kept the elegant figure in the left of this sketch, however, moving him along the beach to a position where his yellow hat provides a colourful accent at the centre of the composition. The finished painting, which was executed at the artist’s house in Hampstead between the end of 1826 and the beginning of 1827, is an important document of Brighton at a key moment of historical transition. Fisher described it as: ‘most beautifully executed & in a greater state of finish and forwardness, than you can ever before recollect’, before adding ‘Turner, Calcott and Collins will not like it’ (JCC, VI, p. 230), since it would probably have been perceived as an intrusion into their territory of marine painting; indeed it may have provoked J.M.W. Turner to consider at one stage treating his own version of Brighton from the Sea for Lord Egremont from the same direction (c. 1829; Sussex, Petworth House).
Constable had offered to lend Fisher one of his Brighton sketch-books, but was eventually unable to do so due to the suggestion that the sketches should be engraved. In place of them he sent a number of oil sketches, which he refers to in a letter of 5 January 1825: ‘I have enclosed in the box a dozen of my Brighton oil sketches-perhaps the sight of the sea may cheer Mrs F – they were done in the lid of my box on my knees as usual. Will you be so good as to take care of them …return them to me here at your leisure but the sooner the better’ (JCC, VI, p. 189). In his letter of  April 1825, Fisher mentions returning the sketches, along with two volumes of Paley’s sermons, remarking: ‘They are fit companions for your sketches, being exactly like them: full of vigour, & nature, fresh, original, warm from observation of nature, hasty, unpolished, untouched afterwards’ (JCC, VI, p. 196).
Constable clearly valued his sketches, which he kept in his studio until his death in 1837 when most of them were included in the painter’s posthumous sale at Foster & Sons in London. The most prized, however, were retained by his daughter, Isabel, before being either sold on her death, or bequeathed to the Victoria and Albert Museum. While never designed to be exhibited or sold - Constable is even recorded as having said that he would sell corn, but not the field that grew it (cited in R. and S. Redgrave, A Century of British Painters, London, 1947, p. 371, note 19) – these sketches were highly celebrated by later generations of artists and scholars. Roger Fry, the influential painter, critic and champion of modern art in Britain remarked in his Reflections on British Painting that every one of Constable’s sketches ‘is a discovery’, and it is in these that we ‘find the real Constable’ (London, 1934, pp. 136 and 140-1); while Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery in London, later pronounced them to be ‘a full record of his sensations…which are nowadays the most admired part of his work’ (Landscape into Art, London, 1961, p. 88).
This small sketch achieved some celebrity when it was in the Chéramy collection in Paris during the early years of the twentieth century. It was one of the finest oil sketches by Constable then on the Continent, at a time when he was being hailed as a father figure of modern painting. H. Franz, in his article on ‘English Pictures in France: M. Chéramy’s Collection’, published in 1902, declared that it both: ‘anticipated and surpassed Courbet’s fine marine paintings’ (op. cit.). While J. Meier-Graefe, in his influential book on Modern Art (first published in German in 1904 and translated into English in 1908), suggested that it anticipated Impressionism: ‘It is shown even more richly in Cheramy’s sea-piece, A Coast Scene with Fishing Boat. Here we are not reminded of De Vlieger or Van de Cappelle … Constable suggests our contemporaries, and the best of these, Manet above all. Things like this little Coast Scene are the first evidences of that conception of Nature which we call Impressionism, and give indications of everything that Manet brought into the same domain’ (op. cit., 1908, p. 129). The broadness of the handling of this sketch, in which details such as the lowered sail and white trouser leg of the elegant standing figure are indicated in a single fluid brushstroke, results in the viewer being very aware of the artist’s medium, much in the same way as with Manet’s Tarring the Boat of 1873, now in The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (fig. 4). Meier-Graefe’s view of the significance of this sketch was reiterated by István Genthon when it later entered the collection of Baron Ferenc Hatvany, where it joined works by Courbet, Corot, Daumier and Manet: ‘This picture also proves that Constable was one of the most influential forerunners of Impressionism, whose elegance and freshness reminds us not of the beginning, but rather of the end of the century’ (op. cit., p. 13).
Please note that this painting has been requested for the exhibition ‘Constable and Brighton’ to be held at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, 8 April-8 October 2017.