John Constable was one of the most original artistic forces to emerge in European painting of the early 19th Century. The impact of his work, like that of his near contemporary Turner, would continue to reverberate in Britain, and internationally, long after his death. His commitment to focussing on pure landscape as the principal subject of his art, unredeemed by any overt historical, religious or mythological references, combined with the idiosyncratic technique he developed to render it, challenged the artistic orthodoxies of the day and have inspired generations of artists ever since.
‘I should paint my own places best – Painting is but another word for feeling. I associate my ‘careless boyhood’ to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter’ (John Constable to John Fisher, 23 October 1821, in R.B. Beckett ed., John Constable’s Correspondence [JCC], Suffolk, 1968, VI, p. 78).
The six large-scale canvases of the Stour valley that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825 define his artistic maturity and secured his professional reputation. Including several of his most celebrated works, notably The White Horse (1819; New York, Frick Collection), and The Hay Wain (1821; London, National Gallery), they represent a distillation of Constable's profound emotional and artistic response to the scenery of his native Suffolk, that was central to his art. They show a radical shift from his earlier work, both in the sheer ambition of their scale and in the unprecedented working method, with the introduction of a full-size sketch for each composition to realise his artistic vision. This full-scale sketch for the fourth work in the series, View on the Stour new Dedham (fig. 1; San Marino, The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822, is the last of the full-scale sketches to remain in private hands (fig. 2).
Our understanding of the full-scale sketches, in relation to the finished pictures and in the wider context of Constable’s oeuvre and artistic legacy, was much enhanced by The Great Landscapes exhibition at Tate Britain, London, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and The Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, between 2006 and 2007. In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Constable: The Big Picture’, John Gage emphasised both the uniqueness and the significance of these full-scale sketches. He argued that the astonishing range of small plein-air sketches, upon which Constable’s reputation as an innovator has largely rested since the late 19th Century, are in fact the ‘most traditional element in his armoury of painting procedures’ (J. Gage, in The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, London, 2006, p. 24), and that Constable was neither exceptional nor innovative in this approach to studying nature; plein-air painting had been well established in Italy since Rubens’s day and in the 18th Century it was practiced widely by young artists working in Rome. Equally, Constable’s method of integrating these outdoor sketches and studies into larger exhibition paintings, and making small preparatory studies of their compositions, was entirely conventional. What was ground-breaking, and in Gage’s mind constituted ‘his most original contribution to landscape art’ (ibid., p. 25), was precisely the development of the full-size sketch. Kenneth Clark, Director of the London National Gallery 1934-1946, heralded these as Constable’s ‘supreme achievement’ and ‘the greatest thing in English art’ (K. Clark, Landscape into Art, London, 1961, p. 89, note 2; and K. Clark, in Twee Eeuwen Engelsche Kunst, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 1936, p. 19).
The ‘six-foot’ canvases
Writing to his great friend and mentor John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, on 23 October 1821, the year he started work on View on the Stour near Dedham, Constable declared: 'I am most anxious to get into my London painting room, for I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas' (JCC, VI, p. 76).
These landscapes, set along the River Stour in Suffolk, were by far the largest pictures that Constable had yet exhibited at the Royal Academy. The idea of undertaking works on a large scale had evidently been in his mind from earlier in his career: the diarist and amateur artist Joseph Farington had recorded seeing a 'Lake District' scene, five feet wide, in Constable's studio in April 1809, which he intended to send to the Academy; while x-radiograph analysis of his full-scale sketch for The White Horse (Washington, National Gallery of Art), shows that beneath it lies an unfinished version of Dedham from Gun Hill, of matching scale, which is believed to date from circa 1817-8. At this earlier stage in his development, however, Constable found himself unable to translate successfully onto a large scale what John Gage has referred to as the 'effusive swiftness of handling' that characterised his small early sketches (op. cit.).
Constable was conscious of the work and professional success of certain contemporaries in the British school of painters. Artists such as John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner had, for example, exhibited works of monumental scale at the Royal Academy to critical acclaim, and Turner had already scaled the heights of professional recognition having been made a Royal Academician in 1802.
Constable was also highly aware of the important precedent set by the Old Masters, whom he greatly revered; and Gage has suggested that it was probably Rubens’ example, over that of his contemporaries, that gave Constable the courage and inspiration to embark on his own campaign of ‘six-footers’ in the 1810s and 1820s (op. cit., p. 21). Constable had been quick to take the opportunity to see the two celebrated large landscapes by Rubens that arrived in London in 1803, having been acquired from a Genoese collection, and were on display in the Studio of the President of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West: The Rainbow Landscape (fig. 3; London, Wallace Collection) and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (fig. 4; London, National Gallery) (27 May 1803, Farington, K. Garlick ed., Diary 1793-1821, New Haven and London, 1978-1984, VI, p. 2039). Constable made his admiration of Rubens's work explicit in the lecture he gave on landscape painting at the British Institution towards the end of his career, in 1836, in which he praised the 'freshness and dewy light' and the 'joyous and animated character' which Rubens was able to instil into his landscapes, 'impressing on Flanders all the richness which belongs to its noblest features', and particularly referred to the Genoese pictures (R.B. Beckett ed., John Constable’s Discourses, Ipswich, 1968, p. 61).
Following the success of The White Horse, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819, Constable exhibited five more 'six-foot' canvases of the Stour: Stratford Mill (1820; London, National Gallery), The Hay Wain (1821; London, National Gallery), View on the Stour near Dedham (1822; San Marino, California, The Huntington Library), The Lock (1824, Private Collection) and finally The Leaping Horse (1825; London, Royal Academy). The subjects of these pictures are all taken from within a small geographical radius of about three miles on the border of Suffolk and Essex, just over fifty miles north-east of London, in what has come to be known as ‘Constable Country’.
Constable was born and brought up nearby in the village of East Bergholt, and the village and the surrounding countryside were to provide him with his most constant sources of artistic inspiration. This landscape was and is defined by the meandering River Stour, on which much of the local agriculture and commerce depended, and with which his own family's prosperity was closely entwined. It was the lower stretch of the river, only a few miles from the sea, winding its way down through the locks of Stratford, St. Mary, Dedham, Flatford and Brantham, that provided the backdrop to Constable's childhood and imbued him with the deep love of nature that he would later translate into his paintings. This section of the canalised Stour with its busy river traffic offered Constable a wealth of narrative incident; each of the Stour ‘six-footers’ shows a different episode from the working life of the river, and each has its own distinctive representation of weather. It is unlikely that Constable planned them as a group from the outset, although he may gradually have begun to see them in this way, but it is instructive to consider them as a sequence, since, as Graham Reynolds observed, together they reveal a ‘successive and progressive exploration of a particular idée fixe’ (G. Reynolds, op. cit., 1965, p. 61).
Constable embarked on a second, slightly less cohesive series of ‘six-footers’ between 1827 and 1837, in which he tackled locations beyond the borders of his native Suffolk, but nonetheless subjects that greatly resonated with him, including Chain Pier, Brighton in 1827 (London, Tate Britain), Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 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 in 1832 (New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). It is perhaps telling, however, that for his final work on this scale he returned to a quintessentially rural scene in his native Suffolk, with Stoke-by-Nayland, c. 1835-7 (Chicago, Art Institute).
In the development of each of these monumental pictures, Constable worked far less directly from the landscape that provided the original inspiration for each of the compositions than he had in his earlier works, some of which had been executed en plein air. This was doubtless partly due to their scale and the fact that he had moved permanently from Suffolk to London in 1816, however, it would also seem to reflect a conscious decision by the artist to tackle the scenery of his native Suffolk in a new and innovative way, and the full-scale sketches were central to this new approach. Analysis of the sketches in relation to their matching finished picture gives insight into this new creative process.
Genesis of View on the Stour near Dedham
Constable appears to have started work on the picture in the early autumn of 1821. He wrote to Fisher on 20 September in a state of frustration, declaring: ‘I am so much behind hand with the Bridge [as he initially referred to the subject], which I have great hindrances in. I cannot do it here - & I must leave my family & work in London’ (JCC, VI, p. 74). The shed that he had cleared in the garden of No. 2 Lower Terrace in Hampstead to use as a workshop would have been too small to accommodate a 6-foot canvas, let alone its full-scale sketch in addition. Constable had instead rented ‘a room at a glazier’s down town [in London]’ for use as a studio (4 Aug 1821, JCC, VI, p. 71). By 23 October, he was again writing to Fisher from Hampstead, increasingly anxious to get to his London painting room: ‘I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas’ (JCC, VI, p. 76).
The scene depicted shows the stretch of the River Stour immediately upstream from Flatford Mill and Lock, looking towards Flatford footbridge, with Bridge Cottage on the right and the tower of Dedham church in the distance. In the right foreground the wooden beam marking the edge of the boatbuilding yard (the subject of one of his earlier pictures, Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill, 1814-15; London, Victoria & Albert Museum) is just visible. While Constable had relied on a variety of plein air oil studies and other compositional material in the preparation of his earlier full-scale sketches, the present work appears to have been based solely on three small pencil studies that he had made along this stretch of the river in a sketchbook in 1814, which is preserved intact at the Victoria and Albert Museum (R.14.32). The left-hand side of the composition was based on studies on pages 27 and 59 (fig. 5) of the sketchbook, while for the right-hand side Constable used a study on page 52 (fig. 6).
In his three previous full-scale sketches Constable had tended to transfer most of the figures from the sketch to the finished picture and then paint them out should they interfere with the balance of the composition, for instance the main boy fishing in Stratford Mill, or the second horse in The Hay Wain. In View on the Stour, however, most of his important alterations were executed on the sketch itself, some of which are discernible in the paint surface as pentimenti: most notably the removal of the sail on the central barge and a figure at its stern, as well as the figure and additional cattle on the bridge, which were painted out by the artist, but traces of which remain in the rich surface of the paint. These pentimenti add texture to the surface and give us an insight into the artist’s creative process as he grappled with his composition.
Further changes in the sketch are made apparent in the x-radiograph of the work (fig. 7), which reveals that Constable originally incorporated more figures in the foreground of the composition: in addition to the two boys fishing, he also included the same little girl who appeared in the far right-hand side of Boatbuilding of 1814-15 and a small rowing boat immediately under the bridge, which he reintroduced in the finished painting, in a lower position, between the reeds, indicating that sometimes his changes of mind went full circle. The most significant alterations that Constable then made between the sketch and finished picture were the omission of the man rowing a skiff on the left (Reynolds suggested this was included in the finished painting and then painted out, and the oar converted into the reflection of the sail beam of the left-hand barge, however, the x-ray does not support this notion; G. Reynolds, op. cit., 1984, p. 100) and the two boys fishing lower right; the replacement of the cattle on Flatford footbridge with a single figure; the reduction of the sail in the distance, which might otherwise have dwarfed the tower of Dedham church; and, most significantly, the addition of a second barge, which becomes the focal point of the composition, together with a lighterman strenuously poling it towards mid-stream (taken from a tiny study Constable made in a sketchbook in 1813; R.13.17; London, V&A) (further small changes can be seen in an x-ray of the finished picture, see R. Asleson and S.M. Bennett, op. cit., p. 58, fig. 22). The action of the central lighterman in the finished picture creates a dynamic focal point, much in the same way as the principal figure in The Lock.
Constable wrote to Fisher explaining these changes in a letter dated 1 April 1822, which indicates that Fisher had seen this full-scale sketch in the artist’s London studio: ‘The composition is almost totally changed from what you saw. I have taken away the sail, and added another barge in the middle of the picture, with a principal figure, altered the group of trees, and made the bridge entire. The picture has now a rich centre, and the right-hand side becomes only an accessory’ (JCC, VI, p. 89). This passage may imply that not all of the changes in the sketch were made at the same time; it is possible that some of them, perhaps the painting out of the sail, were made at quite a late stage, and that Constable may even have worked on the sketch and finished painting in tandem. It also makes it clear that these alterations were designed to change the overall structure and impact of the image.
Constable made more changes to this full-scale sketch, as well as between the sketch and the finished picture, during the course of the subject’s development than he had done for any of his previous large River Stour landscapes. His working process may have been complicated by the slightness of his preparatory material, however, it would also seem clear that at this particular juncture in the River Stour series Constable was striving to create a more ambitious and focused design and the role of the full-scale sketch was crucial to achieving this. While the figurative element in the first three of the large River Stour pictures is somewhat understated, in the next three paintings the figures take on a more emphatic role, adding dynamism to the composition. View on the Stour is clearly a pivotal work in this development.
Far from simply allowing him the opportunity to experiment spontaneously and creatively with his composition, the full-scale sketches gave Constable complete freedom of expression, enabling him to focus on the essential elements of each picture without yet having to devote attention to the pictorial finish of the works: ‘no longer shackled by the rigours of academic ‘finish’, [Constable] could express his personal vision by engaging in a more physical way with the act of painting on a large canvas’ (S. Cove, in The Great Landscapes, op. cit., p. 52). Clark went further by suggesting that: ‘The boldness and freedom of touch were partly a means of rendering effects of light, partly a means of expressing emotion; and it was only possible to conserve the vividness of the original emotion on this scale if he felt free from all anxieties of finish and logical composition’ (K. Clark, The Hay Wain in the National Gallery, London, 1944, p. 8).
Constable’s artistic temperament and his deep emotional response to nature is made explicit in his extensive and detailed correspondence. His challenge as a landscape artist was two-fold: firstly, he had to translate his thoughts, and the emotions bound up in them, into terms of drawing and painting; and secondly, he had to find a means of translating these on to a monumental scale and to create an enduring image of nature, since ‘in a sketch there is nothing but the one state of mind – that which you were in at the time … it would not serve to drink at again & again’ (Constable to Fisher, 2 Nov 1823, JCC, VI, p. 142). He mastered the former early in his career, expressing his feelings through an ‘effusive swiftness of handling’ in his small oil sketches, in which ‘brushmarks became indices of feeling’ (J. Gage, op. cit., p. 29). The introduction of the full-scale sketches was fundamental to achieving the latter ambition, which had evaded him in the early part of his career. Kenneth Clark described them as: ‘not so much dress rehearsals as emotional discharges which allowed him to attack his final canvas without a feeling of frustration’ (K. Clark, op. cit., 1944, p. 8), and Rhyne later acknowledged their importance in: ‘attempting to understand the psychology of Constable’s working procedure’ (C. Rhyne, ‘Constable’s First Two Six-Foot Landscapes, in Studies in the History of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990, vol. 24, p. 120, note 6).
This ‘effusive swiftness of handling’ is ubiquitous in the present sketch, in which Constable can be seen to have worked quickly and instinctively across the surface, laying paint thickly on to the canvas in scumbles and strokes of his brush and in some instances directly with a palette knife, for example in the rendering of the sail (the outline of which is still visible below subsequent layers of paint) and in a diagonal sweeping motion in the sky. Local colour is applied wet-in-wet and wet-over-semi-dry layers of pigment, notably in the almost abstract depiction of a fire on the far bank, with bold splashes of yellow, blue and red (Constable replaced this detail with a tow-horse in the finished painting, but retained the strong accent of red in the horse’s harness). The integrity of the surface, with its thick impasto, has been remarkably well preserved allowing a full appreciation of the artist’s astonishing and innovative technique.
Making so many of his changes on the full-scale sketch rather than on the exhibition version and being able to express himself feely in his application of paint, helped Constable ensure that the surface of the finished exhibition painting was fresher and less heavily worked. Indeed, Constable told Fisher that he had ‘endeavoured to paint with more delicacy’ when working on the exhibition version of View on the Stour (cited in C.R. Leslie, J. Mayne ed., Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, London, 1951, p. 90), and later: ‘my conscience acquits me as to any neglect of [my] last picture’ (Constable to Fisher, 13 April 1822, JCC, VI, p. 89). Although the finished painting failed to find a buyer at either the Academy in 1822, or on its exhibition at the British Institution in 1823, the following year it was purchased, together with The Hay Wain, by John Arrowsmith, and on their exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1824 the pictures caused a sensation and earned Constable a gold medal. While many of his English contemporaries were still critical of the perceived ‘want of finish’ in Constable’s works, the French were quicker to recognise and respond to the revolutionary nature of his technique. The finished painting of View on the Stour near Dedham was still in France when, in the early 1830s, Constable selected the subject for inclusion in his publication on Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery, from pictures painted by John Constable, R.A., engraved by David Lucas (later known more simply as English Landscapes); Lucas therefore made the print from the full-scale sketch (A. Shirley, The Published Mezzotints by David Lucas after John Constable, R.A., Oxford, 1930, no. 19).
The sketch almost certainly formed part of the artist’s sale held at Foster & Sons the year after his death, in 1838, and it may subsequently have belonged to the sculptor and poet, Thomas Woolner, R.A., who also owned Turner’s Neapolitan Fisher Girls Surprised Bathing by Moonlight (San Marino, Huntington Art Gallery). When this sketch was offered as part of the deceased estate of John Macmillan Dunlop at Christie’s in 1883 – the last time it appeared at auction – it was acquired by the wealthy Victorian businessman and philanthropist Thomas Holloway, who made his fortune by manufacturing patent medicines. Holloway’s passion for philanthropy and for picture collecting came together in his endowment of Royal Holloway College: a college for 250 women, which he filled with pictures by a range of British artists. Constable’s View on the Stour near Dedham, full-scale sketch was among the highlights of the collection, along with Gainsborough's Peasants Going to Market (Private collection) and Turner’s Van Tromp, going about to please his Masters, Ships a Sea, getting a Good Wetting (Los Angeles, Getty Museum). Holloway’s own private collection included masterpieces such as Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata and Gérard David’s Deposition (both New York, Frick Collection).