Lot 51
  • 51

John Constable, R.A.

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
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  • John Constable, R.A.
  • The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, seen from Whitehall Stairs, London, 18 June 1817
  • inscribed on an old label, verso: Waterloo Bridge from Whitehall Stairs – the new bridge openend by the Prince Regent 1817. John Constable
  • oil on canvas


Camille Groult (1832–1908), Paris;

Thence by descent.


J. Farington, Diary 1793–1821, 16 vols, New Haven and London 1978–84, vol. XV, K. Cave (ed.), p. 5396;

G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vols., New Haven and London 1984, text vol., p. 34, no. 19.21 (as whereabouts unknown);

A. Lyles (ed.), Constable. The Great Landscapes, exh. cat., Tate, London 2006, p. 184.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: John Constable. The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, seen from Whitehall Stairs. This painting has recently been lined and cleaned. There is just a single retouched scratch visible under UV, a narrow quite brief vertical line in the upper left corner. Presumably a preparatory sketch for the large painting in the Tate, there are various changes especially in the sky. The warm ground is evident throughout, and the sky appears to have initially had some of the vivid cloudscape to be seen in the final painting. Whether this was then set aside as the artist worked elsewhere is impossible to tell but there is no doubt that the sky has a rather marked craquelure and signs of wear in the underlying clouds which are not visible in the lower half of the painting. The entire lower scene seems to have been completed with a sure hand and sweeping impasto, detailing all the minute ceremonial figures on the landscape border of the Thames, prior to the later creation of the embankment. Similar sweeping strokes have been used to tie together the traces of earlier preliminary sketchy ideas for the sky. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This recently rediscovered sketch is an important, previously lost, early study for one of John Constable’s most celebrated paintings, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate Gallery, London, fig. 1), which the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832. Probably the artist’s first attempt at working out the composition, it is believed to be the picture Constable showed to Joseph Farington in 1819, an event recorded in the latter’s diary for 11 August that year but which hitherto no previously known sketch has been traced. Recent scientific analysis has shown that the handling and technique are typical of Constables practice circa 1819–20, whilst the elevated perspective correspond with the ‘bird’s eye view’ that Farington describes. Previously unknown to scholars, the sketch has a distinguished provenance, having belonged to the great French collector Camille Groult, who established the most significant collection of British art in France in the nineteenth century.

The view is taken from the south-west, looking north-east towards the City, with the north bank of the river on the left and the south bank on the right. In the lower left foreground is the garden of Fife House, at that time the home of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, with the flag of St George flying from the garden wall and myriad figures scurrying about on the lawn. Below, on the water, are clustered several ceremonial barges, one of which flies the Royal Standard. The bridge itself, gleaming bright against the otherwise muted palette of the picture, cuts across the stream in the middle distance, reaching from Somerset House (home of the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1837) and the Savoy on the north bank, to Lambeth on the south. In the eighteenth century the south bank of the Thames had been characterised by pleasure gardens and theatres but by the early nineteenth century was becoming increasingly industrialised, as can be seen by the tower belching smoke and the densely packed, low lying wharfs along the bank. Beyond, in the far distance, the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral looms large above the skyline whilst the horizon is marked with white dashes indicating the numerous medieval church spires of the City of London. A puff of smoke at the centre of the bridge indicates that a salute has been fired, whilst out on the water and along its banks the river teams with life as the pageantry of the occasion gets under way. Such depictions of London’s river based festivities had long been a staple of artistic subject matter. Jan Wyck had painted Frost Fairs on the Thames in the seventeenth century and Canaletto, who spent a decade in London from the mid-1740s, painted numerous such scenes, like Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames, 1747 (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven). In addition to Constable’s many sketches and re-workings of this scene the original Waterloo Bridge would famously become immortalised in a large series of luminous paintings by Claude Monet in the very early twentieth century.

The gradual evolution of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge was a long and complicated one, the artist grappling with the unfamiliar subject matter. Constable first conceived the idea of a grand Thames subject shortly after his permanent move to London, having finally married his long time sweetheart Maria Bicknell in 1816. Hitherto the artist’s subject matter had almost exclusively been drawn from his native Suffolk landscape, but with his move to the metropolis came a desire to tackle an historical landscape to rival the great seaports of Claude Lorraine and the ceremonial pomp of Canaletto’s London views. Equally, with the added commercial impetus and ambition necessitated by his marriage, Constable may well have been encouraged by his father-in-law to court royal patronage, just as Turner was doing (though with no more success) with his England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1819. Charles Bicknell had long opposed Constable’s marriage to his daughter on grounds of the artist’s financial instability, and as a solicitor to the Prince Regent would certainly have viewed royal patronage for his new son-in-law as a way to secure Maria’s financial future. Above all, now that Constable lived in London, why should he not translate his monumental Suffolk river scenes into a view of the Thames, the greatest river of them all? Such a painting would show him capable of a greater variety of subject at this crucial time in his life and, as a patriot and royalist, he would have been attracted to an historic event of this importance; the painting of which would undoubtedly further his Academic career.

Designed by John Rennie, Waterloo Bridge was officially opened by the Prince Regent on 18 June 1817, to huge public fanfair. The Prince, accompanied by an escort of both Foot Guards and Horse Guards, embarked on one of the Royal Barges from Whitehall Stairs and processed by river to the southern end of the bridge in convoy with the Lord Mayor, in his ceremonial barge the Maria Wood, and representatives of the Navy. Salutes were fired from the bridge as they progressed and, upon landing, His Royal Highness marched in procession with the Dukes of York and Wellington across the bridge, lined for the occasion with Waterloo veterans. Packed crowds lined both sides of the river and the festive atmosphere was heightened by the consumption of beer and gin. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Constable himself witnessed the events. He was certainly in London at the time, being a regular attender at the Royal Academy’s annual spring exhibition at Somerset House (situated on the north bank of the river just to the east of the bridge), and three pencil drawings of the bridge, or made in its immediate vicinity, are thought to come from a sketchbook he used in the early summer of 1817. 

The first certain record of Constable working on the subject occurs in the diary of his fellow artist Joseph Farington, in an entry for 11 August 1819, when he noted: ‘Constable called and brought a painted sketch of his view of Waterloo Bridge &c and the river as it appeared on the day of the opening of the bridge. I objected to his having made it so much a “Bird’s eye view” and thereby lessening [the] magnificence of the bridge & buildings. – He sd. he would reconsider the sketch.’ When compared with the finished painting of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and all the other painted sketches for the subject, the elevated viewpoint of this previously untraced picture identifies it as the ‘Bird’s eye view’ that Farington saw. It therefore represents the artist’s earliest thoughts on the composition, and can most likely be identified with a picture referred to by Constable in a letter to his great friend, the Rev. John  Fisher, on 17 July 1819: ‘I have made a sketch of my scene on the Thames – which is very promising’.1 The details of both the architecture and foreground are painted in the artist’s typical rapid shorthand notation of dabs, flecks,  dots, splashes and scrapes of brilliant impasted paint, all applied with the brush (and therefore predating the development of his use of the palette knife in the 1820s), using a minimal palette of colours. As Sarah Cove has observed, the technique, especially in the trees and foliage, is directly comparable to Constable’s work in the mid- to late 1810s, up to 1820, as seen in pictures such as the unfinished study for Dedham Lock and Mill (Tate Gallery, London), painted circa 1816–18, and Salisbury Cathedral and Leadenhall from the River Avon (National Gallery, London), painted in 1820.  

The composition and handling relate closely to a small sketch (6 x 8 ¾ in.) that emerged when it was sold in these rooms, 30 November 1960, lot 122, which also shows the elevated viewpoint that was Constable’s starting concept (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, fig. 2).2 Roughly handled and on such a small scale it may well have been painted on the spot; and both this and the present work relate in terms of their composition to a detailed topographical pencil drawing that Constable probably made from the upper floor of No. 5 Whitehall Yard, the bow fronted house that he eventually included in the picture itself (see fig. 1). Constable had strong precedent for choosing to start with such a viewpoint. The great Canaletto himself had adopted such an aerial view in his paintings of the Thames, as had many other artists, thus ensuring a high horizon line which would allow plenty of space to depict the pageantry on the water. Following Farington’s advice, however, in subsequent preparatory studies for the composition Constable substantially lowered the perspective, as seen in another sketch from 1819, which was probably Constable’s next attempt at the scene, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 3).  In the V&A sketch the artist appears to have used the garden of Michael Angelo Taylor’s house, which adjoined the bow-fronted building at 5 Whitehall Yard but had a garden that ran much further out into the river. In this second conception of the scene the viewer is brought almost down to the water level, the garden of Fife House is lost from view and the foreground activity around Whitehall Steps, with the Prince and his entourage embarking in the Royal Barge, become much more the focus of the picture.

On 1 September 1820 Constable wrote to Fisher, saying: ‘I am putting my river Thames on a large canvas, I think it promises well’,3 and it is likely this large canvas that he again took to show Farington in November that year to see how he approved of his amendments to the composition. Farington, however, persuaded Constable to set the picture aside and paint another large Suffolk subject for the following year’s Royal Academy exhibition – the result of which was The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London), exhibited in 1821. It would be another eleven years before Constable finally exhibited his finished version of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge at the Academy, with the artist working on and off the project at various stages in the intervening period, producing a number of different drawings and oil sketches as he felt his way forward towards the final composition. As Anne Lyles succinctly documented in her 2006 Tate exhibition catalogue, Constable: The Great Landscapes, of all Constables great landscapes The Opening of Waterloo Bridge had by far the longest gestation and the most complex evolution. When it was finally exhibited in 1832 it was hung alongside J.M.W. Turner’s Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, going to sea (Tokyo Fuji Art Museum) and the two pictures were the source of one of the great contemporary anecdotes about the two artists’ rivalry. Put out by the high colour key of Constable’s long anticipated masterpiece when he saw it hanging next to his own cool, grey marine piece on varnishing day, Turner added an intense red buoy to his picture at the last minute, which is said to have prompted Constable to remark: ‘He has been here and fired a gun.’4 The Opening of Waterloo Bridge is today one of the artist’s most celebrated works, famous the world over as an icon of British art.

Note on the Provenance
This picture, which has recently emerged, belonged to the great nineteenth century French collector Camille Groult (1832–1908). The heir to a milling fortune, Groult had been buying French eighteenth-century paintings and drawings since the 1860s, but in the 1880s and '90s his interest progressed to British art and he quickly established himself as the greatest collector of English paintings in France during the late nineteenth century. He made frequent trips to London to buy pictures as well as acquiring them from French dealers such as the Boussod & Valadon Gallery, who sold him Gainsborough’s Portrait of Lady Mulgrave for 22,000 francs in 1897. His collection, which included numerous works by Turner, Reynolds, Lawrence, Hoppner, Raeburn, Gainsborough and Constable, was housed at his mansion on Avenue de Malakoff in Paris. Among the stars of the British collection were Turner’s Ancient Rome – Ovid Banished from Rome (Private collection, New York); the Falls of Schaffhausen, Val d’Aosta (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), which he bought from Sedelmeyer; and Junction of the Severn and the Wye (Museé du Louvre), which to this day is the only Turner in a French public collection. It is possibly these latter two pictures that were included in an exhibition of English painting in Paris in 1894, when they were seen by Camille Pissarro who wrote to his son, Lucien, that he has seen ‘two Turners belonging to Groult, which are quite beautiful’.5 More significantly, as well as an early watercolour of Derwentwater by Constable, Groult owned another of the artist’s preparatory sketches for The Opening of Waterloo Bridge; that now in the Paul Mellon Collection (Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, fig. 4), which probably represents the artist’s final amendments to the composition and relates most closely to the finished picture now at the Tate Gallery. He therefore, whether by coincidence or intent, owned the physical manifestation of both the opening and closing stages of the artist’s thought process in the evolution of this great masterpiece.

Groult was intensely private about his collection and although a selection of highlights was exhibited at the Pavillon de Bagatelle in 1905, no official catalogue of the collection was ever produced. In 1920 the Gallerie Georges Petit held a large sale of a portion of the collection, under an anonymous name, and a number of works were subsequently sold by his grandson, including Turner’s Junction of the Severn and the Wye, which was bought by the Louvre in 1967. This sketch, however, has remained in the hands of his descendants and its discovery represents an important development in our understanding of the evolution of one of Constable’s most famous paintings, as well as a significant addition to his œuvre.  

We are grateful to Anne Lyles and Sarah Cove for their assistance with the cataloguing of this lot and for endorsing the attribution following first hand inspection and scientific analysis. A technical report by Sarah Cove ACR, Constable Research Project, is available upon request to the department.



1. Reynolds, 1984, p. 34.

2. The Clarke picture has traditionally been ruled out as that shown to Farington, however, on account of its very small scale, which would not have allowed Constable to properly explain his plans.

3. R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable Correspondence, Suffolk 1968, vol. VI, p. 56.

4. C.R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, 2 vols, London 1860, vol. I, pp. 202–03

5. Quoted in M. Butlin and E. Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, 2 vols, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, text vol., p. 305.