John Constable, R.A.
- John Constable, R.A.
- The Lock
- inscribed on an old label, verso, in the artist's hand: Landscape: Barge passing a Lock / J. Constable R.A. 35 Charlotte St / London
- oil on canvas, unlined
His sale, London, Foster's, 15 February 1855, lot 18, to W. Orme Foster, for £903;
William Orme Foster (1814–1900), at 6 Belgrave Square from 1855 to 1900, and later at Apley Park, Shropshire;
By descent to his grandson, Major Arthur William Foster (1884–1960);
By inheritance to his nephew, Major-General Edward Henry Goulburn (1903–1980);
By inheritance to his cousin, the father of the present owners.
Worcester Institution, 1834, no. 141 (as 'Landscape – a barge passing a Lock on the Stour');
Birmingham, Society of Artists, 1838, no. 42;
Manchester, Art Treasures Exhibition, 1857, no. 298 (lent by W. O. Foster);
Wrexham, Museum and Art Gallery, 1876, no. 283 (lent by Mr Foster of Apley);
Birmingham, Museum and Art Gallery, Works of Art from Midland Homes, 1953, no. 5;
London, Tate Gallery, Bicentenary Exhibition, 1976, no. 312;
Manchester, City Art Gallery, 2007;
On loan to Tate Britain, London, April 2013 – August 2014.
Catalogue of Pictures etc. at Apley Park, n.d., circa 1900, p. 14;
P. Sketchly, 'British Landscape Painters', in The Art-Treasures Examiner, Manchester and London 1857, p. 71, reproduced;
F. Simpson, 'Constable's 'Lock'': A Postscript', in Connoisseur, vol. CCXIX, March 1952, p. 39;
R. B. Beckett, 'Constable's 'Lock'', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCIV, September 1952, pp. 255-256, reproduced fig. 9;
R. B. Beckett, 'Constable's 'Lock'', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. XCV, March 1953, p. 100;
L. Parris, I. Fleming-Williams & C. Shields, Constable: Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings, Tate Gallery bicentenary exhibition catalogue, London 1976, pp. 178–79, cat. no. 312, reproduced;
R. Hoozee, L'Opera completa di Constable, Milan 1979, pp. 132–33, no. 457, reproduced;
M. Rosenthal, Constable. The painter and his landscape, New Haven and London 1983, p. 152, reproduced pl. 188;
G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vols, New Haven and London 1984, text vol., p. 164, no. 25.33. plates vol., reproduced pl. 603;
A. Dempsey et al., Constable. Le choix de Lucian Freud, Grand Palais exhibition catalogue, Paris 2002, p. 156;
A. Lyles et al., Constable. The Great Landscapes, Tate exhibition catalogue, London 2006, p. 154;
'Art, City Spectacle: The 1857 Art Treasures Revisited', in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester, 2009, vol. 87, no. 2, p. 96.
In mezzotint by David Lucas, 1834
The year 1824 marks a turning point in Constable's career. In addition to the triumph he had achieved with The Lock he sold two of his earlier 'Six-Footers' that year, The Hay Wain (1821) and View on the Stour (1822), to the Anglo-French dealer John Arrowsmith, and their reception in Paris won him a gold medal at the Salon in 1825. After years spent struggling for recognition both with the public and at the Academy, finally he was becoming a commercial success. Buoyed by the huge critical acclaim that had greeted the Morrison picture (fig. 2), and riding a wave of public demand, in 1825 Constable embarked on another version of the composition. 'I am now finishing a copy of my Lock, which rejoices me a good deal - it is a very lovely subject' he wrote to his wife Maria on 28 October, having written to his friend John Fisher two days previously 'I have a half-length of a lock in hand - far better than usual'.1 It is this picture, the Foster version of The Lock, to which Constable is referring. Whilst this is the only occasion on which he made another version of one of his monumental Stour Valley series, Constable had been making copies of those of his pictures which had proved popular with collectors since the early 1820s, and it is a practise that would become increasingly common later on in his career, particularly with the numerous versions of his Salisbury Cathedral views.
There were a number of sound reasons for Constable to produce another version of this particular picture. Constable had often complained to his friends of the pressure to complete his large scale canvases in time for the Academy exhibitions each summer, and having achieved success the first time round the production of another gave him the opportunity to further develop a tried and tested composition. It would also enable him to have a version of the composition from which to commission an engraving, and it is clear from the inclusion of a small group of birds in the sky upper right, above the trees, as well as the more emphatic rainclouds over Dedham, both of which are found in this version but which are absent from the Morrison picture, that David Lucas was working from the Foster version of the picture when he produced his highly impressive single plate mezzotint of the composition in the mid-1830s. A series of regularly-spaced pinholes around the edges of this picture, used by engravers in the transfer process for 'squaring up' the composition, further confirm that it is this picture upon which the mezzotint engraving, published in 1834 under Constable's name, is based (fig. 1).
Finally, by painting another version of one of his most successful and critically acclaimed compositions to date, Constable could ensure that he would always have it to hand to send to future exhibitions, both in England and abroad. This indeed he did, sending the picture both to the Exposition National des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1833, and the Worcester Institution in 1834. A label in Constable's own hand giving the title of the picture (which is crucially very slightly different from that used at the RA exhibition in 1824), his name, and his address in London, which is attached to the back of this painting confirms that it was this picture that the artist sent to both these exhibitions, as opposed to the Morrison picture, which of course he had sold. This picture, however, he retained in his own collection until his death, and it was only sold in his studio sale in 1838. It has remained in private hands ever since, having only appeared at auction on one other occasion in 1855, when it achieved a world record price for the artist that was to remain unchallenged for more than a decade.
Together with his near contemporary, J. M. W. Turner, Constable was one of the most original artists of the early nineteenth century, and between them they revolutionised the art of landscape painting forever, setting in train a movement that would find its fullest expression nearly half a century later in France with the work of the Impressionists. However, whilst Turner is perhaps more commonly associated with the landscape of continental Europe through his sublime views of Italy and the Swiss Alps, Constable is arguably the greatest 'English' painter in that his work has become virtually synonymous in the popular imagination with his native landscape. Indeed to many his paintings represent the quintessential vision of English countryside the world over.
Constable's Landscape: The Stour Valley and the Six Foot Series
'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...' Constable Country, as it has come to be known today – that area of the Stour Valley around Dedham Vale, on the border between Suffolk and Essex, bounded on the west by the village of Neyland, and on the east by the sea – has become synonymous with the great painter who immortalised its bucolic river meadows and shaded waterways. A fertile and workmanlike landscape centred on the village and parish of Dedham, which had been a prosperous cloth-working town in the Middle Ages, in Constable's day Dedham Vale was principally an agricultural centre, the main industry being founded on the production of wheat, barley and oats. Encompassing the villages of East Bergholt, Stratford St Mary, Langham and Stoke-by-Neyland, it is today an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and was a part of the country with which Constable was particularly intimate.
The artist's parents, Golding and Ann Constable, lived at East Bergholt, where the young painter was born and brought up. A prosperous miller and successful businessman, his father owned watermills at Flatford and Dedham, and a windmill on East Bergholt Heath. Golding traded corn and coal out of Mistley Wharf on the North Essex coast, operating a fleet of commercial barges on the river Stour (called lighters), as well as three dry-docks at Flatford for their construction and repair, and two sea going Thames barges for transporting goods between Mistley and London. He also owned a coal yard at Brantham and served as one of the Commissioners of the River Stour Navigation. Golding's family had lived in the area for generations, and by 1774 he was sufficiently prosperous to buy a piece of land at East Bergholt and build a substantial mansion, where two years later his fourth child, John, was born, together with 93 acres of arable land around the village which the family farmed. The Constables' social position, and the fact that his father owned a large portion of it, gave the young Constable unfettered access to much of the land around his childhood home, and an intimate knowledge of its gently rolling hills, picturesque villages, green riverbanks and luxuriant meadows. It was this visual reservoir, accumulated during the halcyon days of his childhood exploring along the banks of the Stour, that would not only inspire Constable's earliest endeavours in paint but provided him with much of the raw materials for many of his greatest paintings.
It was also here, in this small area of Suffolk, that Constable met and befriended many of the people that would shape his later career. John Dunthorne, an early friend and mentor whose son would become Constable's faithful studio assistant, owned the cottage near the gates of his parent's house; John Reade, who lived at Old Hall, a large manor house opposite Golding Constable's at East Bergholt who encouraged the young artist and let him sketch in his park (see fig. 4); Dr Rhudde, whose granddaughter Maria became Constable's wife, was vicar of East Bergholt Church; Sir George Beaumont, an early patron who played an important role in encouraging his love of painting, often visited Dedham to see his mother; and Dr John Fisher, later Bishop of Salisbury and the uncle of Archdeacon Fisher, Constable's closest friend, who became one of the artist's most important patrons was rector of nearby Langham.
The life force of the Vale was the river Stour itself, which was made navigable by an Act of Parliament in 1705, resulting in thirteen locks being installed along its length between Sudbury and the coast. Before the arrival of the railways in East Anglia, rivers and canals were the main arteries for trade, and these locks enabled the horse-drawn barges for which the area was so famous to negotiate the differences in river level and travel both up and down stream with relative ease. Stour lighters were usually linked together in pairs and pulled by a single horse, so the locks were designed to accommodate two lighters at a time. Each lighter could carry up to thirteen tons, and by pairing up the tonnage could be increased to twenty-six tons per journey, far exceeding the weight that could be transported by horse and cart. On the downstream journey the Stour lighters carried a variety of goods, particularly milled flour and Suffolk bricks, bound for London, whilst upstream they transported Newcastle coal to power the Sudbury brick factories, as well as iron, oil and night soil (i.e. manure - both human and horse!) to spread on the fields as fertiliser.
The lock at Flatford, which was adjacent to Golding Constable's mill, was built in 1708 and originally consisted of a turf-sided structure. In 1776, the year Constable was born, it was replaced with the wooden lock gates seen in his paintings and sketches of the site. The new locks, towpaths and staunches (lock gates) needed constant attention, and the shoals of silt that built up due to the stagnation of the waters had to be regularly removed. In 1815 Abram Constable, the artist's brother, who had inherited Flatford Mill from his father, wrote that 'Flatford Locks are in a ruinous state, the Upper Gates therof cannot be opened without the Assistance of an Horse – also the Float Jump in the Float Meadow over the county river is very Ruinous and in Decay'2, and again in 1820 he wrote of Flatford Lock that it was badly leaking and the banks in a dangerous state.3 Constable produced a number of sketches of Flatford Lock during his lifetime, the earliest of which date to 1813 and show a rickety structure, with dense vegetation growing over the tow path. By 1823, when Constable revisited the scene in preparation for his 1824 Royal Academy composition, repairs had clearly been carried out, as his drawings from this date demonstrate (fig. 5). In 1838, one year after Constables death, the old lock that he had depicted so fondly was finally replaced, in a new position, where it can still be seen to this day.
The Lock is the fifth in a series of six monumental Stour Valley compositions, known as the artist's celebrated 'six footers', which were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825. These epic canvases represent the culmination of a process which he had begun as early as 1812 with a smaller view of Flatford Lock and Mill, and all share a common theme, each depicting a scene within a three mile radius of Constable's family home in East Bergholt. All six have a very particular narrative, illustrating familiar scenes of everyday life on the river under a bright summer sky. They are, for many, Constable's defining works, and include The White Horse (1819, National Gallery of Art, Washington), The Young Waltonians (1820, National Gallery, London), The Hay Wain (1821, National Gallery, London), View of the Stour near Dedham (1822, Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino), The Lock, and The Leaping Horse (1825, Royal Academy of Arts, London). These six pictures largely cemented the artist's contemporary reputation, and have served as the basis for his celebrated fame ever since.
Constable's love for the essentially flat and un-emphatic landscape of his native Suffolk, with its 'gentle declivities, its woods and rivers...'4, so devoid of the sort of obvious pictorial potential that attracted artists and tourists alike to other regions of the country, such as the Lake District or Wales, was a notable deviation from the usual habits of contemporary landscape painters. Until at least 1821 Constable almost exclusively painted places that he knew, and with which he was completely familiar, in marked contrast, for instance, to Turner's more typical practice and his voracious appetite for touring. This had obvious consequences for his art, for Constable knew his landscape, both over time and from numerous angles. He would have both seen it change over time and have been conscious of the degree to which a limited area of terrain could be differentiated topographically, with this local intimacy and memory both informing his paintings. This was a very different order of knowledge to that which most contemporary landscape painters possessed of their subjects, and applies equally to the local industry and figural activity within his pictures as it does to topographical familiarity. In The Lock the view is taken from Flatford, looking west across the Stour towards Dedham Heath, the area of raised ground seen to the left in the middle distance over which a rain shower breaks. Framed between the upright spars of the lock is a distant view of Dedham Church, illuminated by a burst of sunshine and seen across the river meadows, whilst the central foreground is dominated by the human activity of a lock keeper straining with a crowbar against the winch (known as a windlass) that will open the shutter to release the water from the lock, thus equalising the level of the river. Simultaneously he jams his knee into the gap between the windlass and the staunch to prevent it running back against the weight, as well as to give himself added leverage. Behind and to his right a bargeman steadies a Stour lighter against the racing current by feeding a rope around a snubbing post, whilst to the left the horse that has brought the barge downstream rests patiently, tended to by a boy and his dog. The scene is all movement and activity, with the sparkle of water as it cascades through the lock gates, the ripple of wind through the leafy foliage on the bank and in the trees, the scudding clouds on the horizon, and the pent up tension of both lock keeper and bargeman as they heave and tug against the strain. These are the scenes of Constable's childhood, the everyday comings and goings of the river Stour, and he knows them with an intimacy that could be surpassed by no other artist. As he said himself – '...the sound of water escaping Mill dams... Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork, I love such things... As Long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight.'
Constable's own description of his Lock as an 'admirable instance of the picturesque',5 closeting his work in the language of the academy, belies the revolutionary nature of this unique choice of subject matter. Indeed it was his very subject, as much as his loose impressionistic handling of paint and ground-breaking treatment of light, that so transformed landscape painting in Europe, and so inspired a younger generation of artists. View painting had, until this point, been exclusively dominated by the classical tradition of academic landscape, in the manner of Claude Lorraine and Gaspard Poussin, and had been propagated in England during the eighteenth century by artists such as George Lambert, Richard Wilson, even Gainsborough and the early works of J.M.W. Tuner. Constable's monumental Stour Valley paintings, however, challenged convention by depicting un-idealised everyday landscapes on a grand scale traditionally reserved for religious and historical subjects, thus elevating the seemingly mundane to the heroic through scale. In this he pre-empted the work of artists such as Gustav Courbet and the French realists of the Barbizon School, including Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet, by twenty years. Eugène Boudin too, the man who taught Monet to paint landscape, was heavily influenced by Constable's work. Indeed it was the exhibition of this very picture at the 1833 Exposition National des Beaux Arts in Brussels, together with The Hay Wain at the Paris Salon in 1824, where Constable won a gold medal, which introduced his work to the French school of landscape painters and set in train a revolution in European art that would find its fullest expression half a century later in the work of the French Impressionists. During the 1870s both Monet and Picasso studied Constable's work in London, and in 1873 Van Gogh acknowledged his debt to the English artist in a letter to his brother Theo, written from London. Whilst all these artists were influenced by the freedom of Constable's brushwork, it was as much his subject matter as his treatment of paint that they found so radical, and so inspirational. The everyday, the ordinary and the commonplace made extraordinary. The ignoble made noble, a subject fit for the realms of high art. Look, for example, at Monet's famous hay stacks (fig. 7), or the landscapes of Alfred Sisley and Vincent van Gogh (fig. 8), and find their inspiration in Constable's Stour Valley paintings. Even today Constable's art continues to inspire and influence, as was acknowledged by the late Lucien Freud who was both directly inspired by Constable's work and saw his influence in the work of earlier 19th- and 20th-century painters – 'I may be quite wrong', he said, 'but I can't see Van Gogh's Boots without Constable behind them'. 6
Note on Provenance
The Foster version of The Lock remained in the artist's studio until his death in 1837, and was then offered in the artist's studio sale at Foster & Sons in Pall Mall on 15 May 1838 (fig. 9). The sale included several of the artists' major masterpieces including Salisbury Cathedral (Tate Gallery, London), Hadleigh Castle (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven) and The White Horse (Frick Collection, New York). It is significant that The Lock fetched £131.50, the second highest price in the sale (the highest was for The White Horse), more even than for Salisbury Cathedral. The buyer was Charles Birch, an enthusiastic and discerning collector of art, who made his fortune from coal mines and also from shrewd sales of pictures from his collection. He had a particular interest in the works of Turner and vied with his friend, the celebrated collector Joseph Gillott, in collecting Turner's work.7 Birch owned eleven major works by Turner including Approach to Venice (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Grand Canal Venice (Huntington Library and Art Gallery, California), The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (Philadelphia Museum of Art) (fig. 11) and The Depositing of John Bellini's Three Pictures (Private Collection). He also owned two other important works by Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate Britain, London) (fig. 12) and The Leaping Horse (Royal Academy, London). Birch's collection was housed at Westfield House, Edgbaston and in his picture gallery at Metchley Abbey in Harbourne near Birmingham. He was a close friend and patron of David Cox, a fellow inhabitant of Harbourne, and accompanied him on numerous sketching trips. Cox benefitted from studying Birch's collection at Metchley Abbey and wrote to William Roberts on 2 June 1840: 'I have also promised my friend Mr Birch I would spend more time with him and as I am determined to make a fair trial in oil painting I expect to gain a good deal of information by having his pictures to look at...' One of the pictures which Cox studied was Birch's The Lock which he hung at Metchley Abbey.8 Cox benefitted much from his study of Constable's work, and in 1845 he drew on what he had learnt when advising his son about oil painting: 'White, I think, must be cautiously used only in such sparkling touches as Constable did'. In 1854 the celebrated German art historian Gustav Waagen travelled around Birmingham and visited Birch to see his collection and it was almost certainly The Lock which elicited from him the following comment: 'A large landscape. The masterly hand with which nature is here represented in form, colouring and aerial effect, renders this one of his most important works.'9 The vicissitudes of the coal trade led Birch to sell pictures at various times in the 1840s and 1850s, and The Lock was included in a sale from Westfield House held by Foster and Son in Pall Mall on 15 February 1855 (fig. 10). The sale also included major works by Wilkie, Maclise and Landseer. The Lock was sold to William Orme Foster for £903.10 This was the record price for a work by Constable, and remained so until 1866 when George Young sold The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London), further evidence of the high esteem with which this picture was held.
William Orme Foster, the new owner of the picture, was a member of a significant family of iron masters based near Stourbridge (fig. 13). His grandfather Henry owned iron works and substantial property in Stourbridge in 1771 and Henry's son James expanded the business and became possibly the leading iron master in Britain. He died without issue in 1853 and left his considerable property to his nephew William, comprising £700,000, his house and the ownership of the enterprise in which they had worked together called The John Bradley & Co. Ironworks, one of the most important iron foundries of the early industrial revolution. He lived at Stourton Castle, a substantial property situated just north of Stourbridge, which dated from the seventeenth century but which had been extensively remodelled for James Foster by Robert Smirke. In 1854, shortly after his uncle's death, Foster bought Guardship at the Great Nore (Private Collection), a major work by J.M.W. Turner from 1809. The next year he bought from Birch's sale not only The Lock but also The First Earring, an important painting by Sir David Wilkie. In 1857 the City of Manchester hosted the great Art Treasures exhibition; the largest art exhibition ever held, which attracted over 1,300,000 visitors in the 142 days that it was open to the public. There were six works by Constable in this great exhibition including Salisbury Cathedral, Helmingham Dell, The White Horse and both Foster's version of The Lock and the horizontal version which had been Constable's diploma picture. The Lock was number 298 and attracted favourable comment in The Art Treasures Examiner, published in 1857 as a critical and historical record of the exhibition. In an examination of the Constable paintings in the exhibition Peregrine Sketchly wrote: 'We have two of the famous Lock scenes here; 257, the property of the Royal Academy, is certainly the most perfect in dew and moisture, wet meadow flats and the various belongings which go to make up a Constable; but 298 is rendered far more solid as a composition by the addition of the fine group of aged willow trees on the right. The artist's reward for these two fine pictures was merely the pleasure of painting them...'.11 In June 1861 Foster added to his collection the important portrait of Mr and Mrs Garrick by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Tate Gallery, London), bought from the Earl of Orkney's collection. In 1867 Foster bought Apley Park from Thomas Whitmore in whose family it had been since the sixteenth century (fig. 14). The price paid was an astonishing £675,000, apparently the largest cheque ever produced to date for the purchase of property. The substantial Georgian house on the banks of the river Severn had been remodelled in 1808–11 in the Neo-Gothic style by Whitmore, and Foster carried out further extensive alterations. The Lock hung there in the Smoking Room with his important collection of pictures until 1960.
Apley Hall had at one stage been considered as a possible country residence for Queen Victoria before she settled in Sandringham. Amongst its celebrated inhabitants was Foster's grandson, the artist and aesthete Lord Berners, who called Apley 'an earthly paradise for children' describing the house as 'a little like Strawberry Hill in appearance and if not quite so airy and fantastic in its architecture was quite as turreted and castellated.' It was also probably the inspiration for P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings. Following the death of Arthur William Foster, William Orme Foster's grandson, the house and property passed in 1960 to his nephew General Goulburn, and shortly afterwards Apley became a school.
A full technical report on this picture by Sarah Cove is available upon request to the department, as are independent essays by Anne Lyles, who explores the relationship between the two versions of the picture, and their place within his famous series of 'six-footers' and Conal Shields, who is particularly familiar with the work of John Dunthorne and examines the picture's historic association with the artist's studio assistant.
1. R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable's Correspondence, 6 vols, Ipswich 1962–68, vol. II, p. 415 & vol. VI, p. 211.
2. East Suffolk Record Office, WI:1324/1.
3. East Suffolk Record Office, EW:3941/.
4. John Constable's Discourses, ed. by R. B. Beckett, Ipswich 1978, pp. 12–13.
5. From a letter from Constable to Archdeacon Fisher, in John Constable's Correspondence, VI, The Fishers, ed. by R, B. Beckett, Ipswich 1970, p. 155.
6. Lucian Freud, quoted at the time of the exhibition 'Constable: Le Croix de Lucian Freud', held at the Grand Palais, Paris, 2002–03.
7. J. Chapel, 'The Turner Collector: Joseph Gillott 1799–1872', in Turner Studies, Winter 1986, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 45–46.
8. S. Wilcox, Sun, Wind & Rain; The Art of David Cox, Yale 2008, p. 52.
9. G. Waagen, Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain, London 1857, vol. IV, p. 403. Birch also owned The Leaping Horse by Constable but sold it in 1853, the year before Waagen's visit. As Waagen's description can hardly have referred to The Opening of Waterloo Bridge he must have been referring to The Lock, the only other major work by the artist owned by Birch.
10. Both the compilers of the 1977 Tate Exhibition and Reynolds suggest that the painting was unsold in the 1855 sale and bought in Birch's later sale on 28 February 1856. However, that was clearly a different picture – it was horizontal not vertical (all the sizes in that catalogue had width before height) and the size was different. Entitled simply The Barge without any further history or description it was bought by Holmes for 350 guineas. Both the annotated 1838 catalogue for the artist's studio sale and the catalogue of Foster's collection agree that the Foster version of The Lock was bought in 1855 for £903. Graves' Dictionary of Sales also confirms that it was bought in 1855 for 850 guineas (£903) but gives the buyer as Holmes which possibly led to the later confusion.
11. The Art-Treasures Examiner, Manchester and London 1857, p. 71.