John Constable

Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage

Oil on canvas: 6.4(h) x 97(w) in /

16.2(h) x 246.4(w) cm

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BS 345

 

JOHN CONSTABLE

East Bergholt, Suffolk 1776 – 1837 London

 

Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage

 

Oil on canvas: 6 3/8 x 9 7/16 in / 16.2 x 24.1 cm

Frame size: 10 x 13 ¼ in / 25.4 x 33.7 cm

 

Painted circa 1812

 

Provenance:

Isobel Constable (1822-1888), the artist’s daughter

The Hon. John Wanamaker (1838-1922), ‘Lindenhurst’, Jenkintown, Philadelphia, by 1904; inv. no.Rt 6085 (147)

Old World Art Inc., New York, 1941, where purchased by

Mrs Viola E Bray (1873-1961), Flint, Michigan, USA;

by descent in a private collection, USA

 

Literature:

Ecsiter, Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures by the Old Masters and of the Early English School & Mihály Munkácsy, Philadelphia 1904, p.80, no.147; pl. 141 (as Lock on Stour (Flatford Lock), hanging in the English Gallery) [John Wanamaker Collection, Lindenhurst Galleries][1]

 

 

This remarkably vivid and spontaneous oil sketch relates to the evolution of one of John Constable’s important early Royal Academy exhibits, Landscape: boys fishing, 1813 (Anglesey Abbey, National Trust; shown here, fig 1, in the mezzotint made after the picture in 1831 by David Lucas for English Landscape). 2 It was formerly unknown to Constable scholars, having been for many years in American private collections.

 

Unlike his great contemporary JMW Turner, Constable proved to be rather a slow starter as an artist. By 1812, however, around the time this and four other, related sketches for Landscape: boys fishing were painted, he was really beginning to get into his stride. 3 Whilst the picture he had shown at the Academy in 1811, Dedham Vale: morning (private collection) failed to receive any critical attention, his 1812 exhibit, Flatford Mill from the Lock (private collection), earned him considerable praise from his peers, notably from the Academy’s President, Benjamin West. 4 This encouraged Constable to select another subject set on the River Stour at Flatford for the following year’s submission, this time a view looking in the opposite direction, away from the Mill towards the footbridge with Bridge Cottage adjacent, the view indeed shown here.

 

Whilst Turner at this date was mainly painting historical landscapes – that is landscapes with classical, mythological or narrative themes – Constable by contrast was committed to painting the scenery in Suffolk where he had spent his boyhood years. Since about 1802 he had formed a resolution to paint landscape in a more honest and ‘truthful’ way. This meant not only painting scenes with which he was intimately familiar (and which held powerful personal associations for him), but also attempting to record them as far as possible on the spot. Thus Constable would return to East Bergholt each summer and spend long periods sketching, in pencil or in paints, in the open air. This practice was greatly facilitated by the fact that his father had acquired a cottage for him in the village which he could use both as a base for his sketching forays as well as a studio in which to paint.

 

Around this time, when planning a picture for exhibition at the Royal Academy – whether Dedham Vale: morning, 1811, Flatford Mill from the Lock, 1812, or Landscape: boys fishing, 1813 (fig. 1) – Constable’s practice was to make a sequence of small preparatory sketches in oil. 5 In this way he might experiment, for example, with the best angle from which to present his composition, how to frame it perhaps, or else how far to extend the panorama on either side. He might also try out the inclusion of different figurative elements. Above all he would use these preparatory sketches to work out the tonal balance of the composition and its lighting effects, even perhaps experimenting with the time of day.   

 

When attempting to chart the evolution of these small preliminary oil sketches, it is usually helpful to assess them together, as a group, the better to work out their likely function and, thus, their probable order of execution. One also needs to consider which of them might have been painted in the open air and which in the studio. 

 

The five known preliminary sketches in oil which relate to Landscape: boys fishing vary somewhat in their angles of presentation and fields of vision. However, their chief differences lie in their figurative components and lighting effects, some represented under the more even light of midday, others the more mellow, richer tones of sunset. 

 

Three of the five sketches in the group, including A view on the Stour near Flatford Mill: sketch for ‘Landscape: Boys Fishing’ (fig. 2), show one (or two) boys leaning into the lock fishing – the figurative detail ultimately incorporated into the final picture where the boys were moved a little further upstream (fig. 1).6  The present sketch, by contrast, is unique in including the distant detail of a herdsman steering a group of cattle over Flatford footbridge. As the motif of the herdsman with cattle seems to have been abandoned by Constable at an early stage, this sketch is probably one of the first in the series. 7 Certainly it looks like a plein-air work, notable for the remarkable vigour and expressiveness of its brushwork. The passage in the far left-hand distance, showing a burst of sunlight through the clouds and illuminating a sequence of haystacks in the fields, is particularly impressive.

 

Meanwhile, though this sketch, Flatford Lock on the Stour  – together with two further studies in the series –  show the scene under the noon light of a summer’s day, two others, including A view on the Stour near Flatford Mill (private collection; see fig. 2), represent it in evening light, the sky suffused with a sunset glow and striated in delicate pinks and golds.8  It seems likely that this latter sketch is another, plein-air work, and perhaps represents one of Constable’s alternative early trials for the composition. In the end he was to carry over elements from both studies (with the aid of the three remaining preparatory sketches, perhaps all studio works) into the final picture: the idea of the boys fishing,  apparently originating from the sunset view (fig. 2) and ultimately to give the picture its exhibition title; and the midday light of a summer’s day, perhaps first explored in this sketch and ultimately contributing to the ‘silvery, sparkling’ quality of the finished painting as singled out by one of the critics  when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1813. 9 The painting was exhibited again the following year, at the British Institution, when it was purchased by the London bookseller James Carpenter. 10

 

An old label attached to the reverse of the original frame which surrounded this sketch confirms that it was once owned by Isabel Constable (1822–1888), the artist’s last surviving child. It was subsequently acquired by the Philadelphia entrepreneur, philanthropist and art enthusiast John Wanamaker, and was one of fifteen paintings in the latter’s collection catalogued by Ecsiter in 1904 as by Constable – though judging by the reproductions of these pictures in that catalogue, only this sketch was a genuine Constable 11.  The sketch was acquired in 1941 by Viola Bray, a great supporter of the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan, and descended in her family.

 

Anne Lyles

 

 

 

1.       Privately printed, The Printing House, Philadelphia; copy in the Frick Art Reference Library, ref. 028 W182.

2.       G Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1996, catalogued the picture at Anglesey Abbey (under 13.1A) as a work of ‘dubious authenticity’. However Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams (Constable, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1991, cat.57, pp.131-2) accepted the Anglesey Abbey painting as Constable’s 1813 Academy exhibit, their reservations about its quality attributed by them to its poor condition – an interpretation with which this author concurs. For the mezzotint made in 1831, see A. Shirley, The Published Mezzotints of David Lucas after John Constable R.A., 1930, no.20, p.179.

3.       Reynolds 1996 (op.cit, note 2), nos 13.3-6.

4.       For Dedham Vale: morning, 1811, and Flatford Mill from the Lock, 1812, see Reynolds 1996, nos.11.2 and 12.1. Constable noted West’s approval of Flatford Mill from the Lock in a letter to Maria Bicknell dated 24th April 1812 (RB Beckett ed, John Constable’s Correspondence II: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable), 1964, p.65). The latter painting was also described as ‘a very excellent and promising study’ in The London Chronicle  for 11th-12th June 1812 (J Ivy, Constable and the Critics 1802-1837, 1991, p.66).

5.       For the preliminary sketches for Dedham Vale: morning, 1811, see Reynolds 1996, nos 11.3-6 (discussed at greater length in Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991, pp.70-74); and for those for Flatford Mill from the Lock, 1812, see Reynolds 1996, nos.12.5-10 (similarly discussed at greater length in Parris and Fleming-Williams op.cit, pp.123-6 as well as in A Lyles ed., Constable: the Great Landscapes, 2006, exh. cat., Tate Britain and other venues, pp.92-7). For those relating to Landscape: boys fishing, 1813, see note 3.

6.       Whilst A view on the Stour near Flatford Mill: sketch for ‘Landscape: Boys Fishing’ seems to show only one boy lying on the tow path, leaning into the lock fishing, Reynolds nos 13.3 and 13.4 each show two boys (plate nos 993 and 994).

7.       It is interesting to note that Constable also made a drawing in pencil of a herdsman driving cattle over Flatford footbridge in a sketchbook he used in 1814, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum (Reynolds 1996, 14.32, p.52). Relying partly on this pencil study (and perhaps also consulting the oil sketch catalogued here, Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage, c.1812) – Constable then included this detail (albeit subsequently painting some of it out) in the full-scale sketch he made for his 1822 ‘six-footer’, View on the Stour near Dedham (G Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1984, no.22.2; see also a discussion of the X-ray of this large sketch in A Lyles ed., 2006, p.149). The herdsman and cow (or cows) on the bridge were not however carried over into the final picture, being replaced there by a single female figure (Reynolds 1984, no. 22.1, Huntington Library and Art Gallery). However, a herdsman with cow did appear in the mezzotint of this subject made in 1831 for English Landscape, as Lucas made this print from the full-scale sketch rather than the finished picture (see A Shirley, 1930, no.19, p.178).

8.       The three studies showing the scene in midday light are this one and Reynolds 1996, 13.3-4; those in evening light, nos 13.5 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and 13.6 (fig.2 in this essay). The latter, 13.6, passed through the Richard Green Gallery in 2000, when a catalogue entry on the sketch was compiled by Susan Morris.

9.       Review for The Examiner, 30th May 1813 (Robert Hunt), cited Ivy 1991, pp.67-8.

10.   For a discussion of James Carpenter, who ran his business from 12 Old Bond Street, see RB Beckett, ed., John Constable’s Correspondence: IV; Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists, 1966, p.135 ff.

11.   See note 1 for full publication details of this catalogue. Even though this sketch appears to have been the only genuine Constable in the collection, some of the other ‘John Constables’ Wanamaker owned may perhaps be attributable to the painter’s talented son, Lionel Constable (1828-1887).

Captions

 

Fig. 1

David Lucas after John Constable, A lock on the Stour, 1831, mezzotint on paper. Tate Britain, London, inv. no.T04029. © Tate, London 2017.

 

Fig 2

John Constable, A view on the Stour near Flatford Mill: sketch for ‘Landscape: boys fishing’, c.1812, oil on canvas. Private collection.

 

Fig. 3

John Constable, Self-portrait, 1806. Graphite on paper, 190 x 145 mm. Tate Britain, London, inv. no.T03899. © Tate, London 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


JOHN CONSTABLE

East Bergholt, Suffolk 1776 – 1837 London

 

Constable, with Turner, is the most important British landscape painter of the nineteenth century, revered for his ‘naturalism’ while Turner’s landscapes suggest grandeur and generalisation. Unlike Turner, Constable did not roam far abroad on picturesque tours, instead creating his art from familiar, much-loved scenery.

 

John Constable, the son of a prosperous miller, was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk in 1776. In 1799 he attended the Royal Academy Schools and had informal tuition from the landscape artist Joseph Farington, as well as copying Old Masters. Constable returned to East Bergholt and first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802, surviving on family money and a modest portrait practice. In 1806 he toured the Lake District, making watercolours of the ‘sublime’ scenery.

 

‘Truth to nature’ was Constable’s credo; from 1808 he made oil sketches from nature as well as pencil drawings of parts of his compositions. These were then used as aide-memoires for an exhibition piece painted in the studio, such as Flatford lock and mill (RA 1812), a view of his father’s mill. In 1811 Constable visited Salisbury at the Bishop’s invitation and formed a lifelong friendship with the Bishop’s nephew, the Rev. John Fisher. He returned to Salisbury throughout his life, painting some of his finest, most moving pictures of the Cathedral in sunshine, showers and overarched by a rainbow. Like the productive fields of the Stour valley where he grew up, the Cathedral represented for the deeply conservative Constable the core values of England which must be preserved in a changing, often threatening world.

 

In 1809 Constable had fallen in love with Maria Bicknell, granddaughter of the Rector of East Bergholt, but they were not able to marry until 1816, because her family (quite correctly) doubted Constable’s ability to support a wife. That year Constable moved permanently to London and began to produce more ambitious paintings such as Whitehall Stairs, June 18th 1817 (the opening of Waterloo Bridge) (1817; exhibited 1832; Tate Gallery, London) and the ‘six-footer’ Stour view The white horse (Frick Collection, New York) which was shown to critical acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1819.

 

That same year Constable became an Associate of the Royal Academy. Seeking fresh air for his consumptive wife, he rented a house at Hampstead and from circa 1820-22 produced a series of brilliant oil studies of skies, noting times of day and weather conditions. From 1824 family holidays in Brighton inspired oils and watercolours of panoramic coast scenes full of light and air.

 

In 1824 Constable sold The haywain (RA 1821; National Gallery, London) to the Parisian dealer John Arrowsmith. The painting won a gold medal in the Paris Salon and Constable’s naturalistic approach to landscape and free, expressive brushwork was highly influential on French painters such as Delacroix and Huet. In 1828 Maria Constable died; the following year her devastated husband was elected RA and remarked bitterly that there was now no beloved wife to make the honour sweet. Constable’s bleakness is reflected in stormy, expressionistic paintings like Hadleigh castle, 1828-9 (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut), where the ruin symbolises himself.   

 

In 1830 Constable supervised John Lucas’s mezzotints after his paintings, English Landscape. Constable increasingly saw landscape in terms of chiaroscuro – composition unified by light and shade – and was less interested in individual elements, symbolism, or ‘historical motifs’ in his painting. Like Turner, though with a totally different approach, he believed passionately in the importance of landscape painting within the hierarchy of artistic genres. Landscape painting was not inferior, but was a paramount expression of a nation’s genius. Constable was an excellent, dedicated teacher at the Royal Academy Schools and lectured widely on the history of landscape painting. A touchy, affectionate and utterly sincere man, he died in London on 31st March 1837. 

 

The work of John Constable is represented in the National Gallery, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Tate Gallery, London; the National Gallery, Washington DC and the Louvre, Paris.

 

 

[1] Privately printed, The Printing House, Philadelphia; copy in the Frick Art Reference Library, ref. 028 W182.

BritishJohn Constable