John Constable, R.A.
- John Constable, R.A.
- Landscape with a red-tiled cottage, a windmill and a rainbow
- oil on canvas
- 32.7 x 41.7 cm.; 13 x 16 1/2 in.
Thence by descent to the present owner.
This late oil sketch by Constable, which has emerged recently from a private collection in America, is a remarkable new discovery. Closely based on a watercolour Constable made either in Kent in 1833 or, more likely, in Sussex in 1834 (Victoria & Albert Museum, London; fig. 1), it can be firmly dated to around this period or slightly later, and throws interesting new light on his painting practice in his final years.
Constable’s ‘late work’ is usually defined, broadly speaking, as encompassing the 1830s, that is to say embracing the last seven of so years of his life, although it’s roots can be traced back to the late 1820s. Key characteristics of his late work are a looser and more expressive brushwork, and a subject-matter in which he began to depart more significantly than hitherto from his earlier credo of ‘truth to nature’. Whilst the famous series of ‘six-foot’ canvases of scenes on the River Stour he painted between 1819 to 1825, for example The White Horse, 1819 (Frick Collection, New York) or The Hay Wain, 1821 (National Gallery, London), are of course studio compositions made in London away from the actual Suffolk scenes they depict, they are nevertheless broadly true in their details to the realities of the scenes they represent.1 By comparison, Constable’s later pictures, such as The Cornfield, 1826 (National Gallery, London), The Valley Farm, 1835 (Tate, London), or Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow 1836 (Tate, London), all incorporate - to a greater or lesser extent - more exaggerated or synthetic elements, often taken from earlier compositions, and have an air of nostalgia that tends to be lacking in his earlier work.2
Nevertheless, this more synthetic way of working in Constable’s late period chiefly applies to those works which are related in some way to his public face, that is to say compositions which he produced in connection with a work which was destined for exhibition or, perhaps, made for David Lucas with a view to being engraved for his late publishing project, English Landscape (1830–32). In his private work, by contrast, Constable was at this date continuing to sketch in the open air with as much enthusiasm as in earlier years, albeit now for the most part just in pencil or watercolour, having essentially abandoned the use of oils for plein-air work from 1829.
Indeed, following the death of his wife, Maria, late in 1828, Constable would often find himself travelling to new destinations – and inevitably also sketching there – in connection either with family commitments or when accepting invitations to visit friends, sometimes taking one or two of his seven children with him. In 1833, for example, he went to Kent to visit his eldest son, John Charles, who had been sent to a boarding school in Folkestone earlier that same year. Meanwhile, in 1834 and 1835 Constable visited Sussex on a number of occasions, staying either in Arundel with a new friend, his namesake (but no relation) George Constable, or else visiting (and once staying for a few days at) Petworth House and exploring its environs in the west of the county. In fact, Graham Reynolds identified Constable’s watercolour of A Red-Tiled Cottage by a Wood (fig. 1), which forms the basis of the cottage scene in oils catalogued here, as having originally been made by the artist in a sketchbook first used in Kent in 1833 and then again in Sussex in 1834.3 This latter book, like most of Constable’s sketchbooks now dismantled, was originally made up of sheets of Whatman wove paper watermarked 1828. Reynolds argued that the red-tiled building Constable shows in this sketch is more likely to be a Sussex than a Kent cottage and, if this is deduction is correct, this would make the watercolour dateable to 1834.4
Apart from their contrasting scale and medium, the most distinctive difference between the watercolour and related oil sketch is the inclusion in the latter, to the right, of a windmill and rainbow, and immediately below these the suggestion of a group of figures and/or animals. Given that these latter features are not included in the original watercolour – and bearing in mind that the double motif of windmill and adjacent rainbow occurs quite frequently as a fanciful addition in Constable’s late work – the question then arises as to whether they are invented compositional motifs here too or, alternatively, based on direct observation. The answer to this would seem to lie somewhere between these two eventualities.
In a recent exhibition about Constable’s visits to Petworth House and West Sussex, Andrew Loukes drew attention to two watercolours made by the artist in 1834 showing the post mill which once stood in Petworth village on the spot now occupied by the public library and which was demolished later in the century.5 He noted it’s prominence in the right-hand foreground of Constable’s first dated watercolour of Petworth, 14 July 1834, where it is seen adjacent to the church (at that date still boasting the tall spire which had been added by Charles Barry), with Petworth House in the distance; and it’s equally prominent appearance, in the left-hand foreground of another watercolour of Petworth showing the view looking south, with the South Downs ridge on the far right (The British Museum, London; fig. 2).6
Moreover, Loukes has pointed out that the latter watercolour is particularly interesting in the context of A Red-Tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill as it includes, on the right, the detail of a man ploughing, and on the left – very close to the mill – an untethered horse with red harness, an additional plough to its right. Given that the mill represented on the right hand side of A Red-Tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill is not unlike the Petworth post mill in appearance, and given that the cluster of shapes below the mill in the oil also includes small dabs of red paint which seem to indicate horses’ harnesses, it seems possible that Constable referred to this watercolour when working up the oil, conflating some of its details with others from the watercolour of the red-tiled cottage (see fig. 1), in this way creating a synthesised West Sussex scene.
Indeed, if the cottage in the oil were to represent the red-tiled building shown immediately behind the mill in the watercolour with a man ploughing (see fig. 2), then conceivably the two main features of the oil – cottage and mill – were in reality situated in close proximity to each other, albeit Constable then brought them closer together in the final image. He had after all done much the same thing when, for pictorial purposes, he brought Langham church closer to the farm building for his various compositions of The Glebe Farm, including those he made for English Landscape.7
Of course, the other possibility is that the mill on the right hand side of Red-Tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill is simply a fanciful addition to the composition (even if broadly reminiscent of the windmill that Constable remembered seeing at Petworth), and in this context it is perhaps worth noting that the windmill’s cap as shown in the oil is painted in red, perhaps to echo the roof of the cottage, whereas in both of his watercolours featuring Petworth Mill Constable paints the cap in brown washes, perhaps indicating its original construction in wood. Certainly the idea of showing a windmill with adjacent rainbow is very much a feature of Constable’s more imaginative late work, perhaps dating back to the time, around 1830, when Constable was experimenting with these very elements when planning a composition of The Glebe Farm for English Landscape.8 They feature together, for example, in the late Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow, 1836 (Tate, London; fig. 3), albeit the windmill in question is here identifiable as the one Constable had originally painted in Brighton in 1824 and now anachronistically transferred to a North London heath.9 Meanwhile, the same juxtaposition of windmill and rainbow occurs in another late cottage scene by Constable in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, A Cottage at East Bergholt, c. 1834-6, which, being a late oil sketch rather than a finished picture, is even closer in its experimental character and liberated handling to A Red-Tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill.10
It is difficult to establish exactly when Constable painted a Red-Tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill though, thanks to the existence of the related watercolour, it is clear that it must have been painted at some stage between about 1833 and 1837, the year of the artist’s death. In an online essay commissioned in connection with the discovery of this picture, Sarah Cove has demonstrated that both the windmill and the rainbow were painted into the picture at a later stage than the rest of the composition, though how much later – that is whether days or months – is impossible to say.11 Whether the picture is classifiable as a Petworth or Sussex view, or else as an imaginary composition very loosely based by Constable on his memories of Sussex, it adds greatly to our knowledge of his working methods in his late career.
We are grateful to Anne Lyles for writing this catalogue entry.
1. G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1984, nos 19.1 and 21.1.
2. Reynolds 1984, nos 26.1, 35.1 and 36.7.
3. Red-tiled Cottage by a Wood, Victoria and Albert Museum, 222-1888 recto, Reynolds 1984, no. 34.61. He discusses the likely contents of this sketchbook, p. 266, under no. 34.56.
4. Under his entry for the watercolour (no. 34.61, see note 4), Reynolds draws a comparison between the cottage shown here and a comparable one drawn by Constable in Sussex the following year in another (intact) sketchbook, no. 35.19, p. 9.
5. A. Loukes, Constable at Petworth, National Trust, 2014, p.17.
6. Loukes 2014, pp. 17–18. Both watercolours are at the British Museum and are, respectively, Reynolds 1984, nos 34.19 and 34.28; and nos 9 and 10 in the catalogue by Loukes, see note 5.
7. For a discussion of Constable’s various Glebe Farm compositions in oils, see L. Parris and I. Fleming-Williams, Constable, Tate Gallery, 1991, exh.cat., nos 166–68, pp. 306–09.
8. In a late version of The Glebe Farm, painted by Constable c. 1830 for Lucas to work up a version (the first version) of the print for English Landscape, the artist at one stage experimented with these two features juxtaposed together on the right hand side of the composition; a rainbow arches over the tower of Langham Church, to which Constable anachronistically added a spire, and under the spire are the (subsequently painted out) paddles of a windmill. The windmill makes an actual appearance in an early proof of the related mezzotint. See G. Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1996, see appendix, no. 27.9A for the oil painting, now at Tate Britain; and also L. Parris, Constable: A New York private collection, supplement, 1998, no. 56, pp. 36–42, which includes a reproduction of the proof of the print with windmill on the right (A. Shirley, The Published Mezzotints of David Lucas after John Constable RA, 1930, no. 22c).
9. See Reynolds 1984, under 36.7; and, for the Windmill on the Downs near Brighton, see Reynolds 1984, no. 24.73 and S. Lancaster, Constable and Brighton: ‘something out of nothing’, 2017, p. 114.
10. Reynolds 1984, no. 36.20.
11. S. Cove, ‘A 'Jackson Pollock' of the 1830s: the painting materials and techniques of A red-tiled Cottage with Rainbow and Windmill, c.1833-37, John Constable R.A.’, 2017.