23
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PROPERTY FROM THE NEIL AND GINA SMITH COLLECTION

John Constable, R.A.
STUDY FOR THE WHITE HORSE
JUMP TO LOT
23

PROPERTY FROM THE NEIL AND GINA SMITH COLLECTION

John Constable, R.A.
STUDY FOR THE WHITE HORSE
JUMP TO LOT

Details & Cataloguing

Old Masters Evening Sale

|
London

John Constable, R.A.
EAST BERGHOLT, SUFFOLK 1776 - 1837 HAMPSTEAD
STUDY FOR THE WHITE HORSE

Provenance

Possibly the painter's son, Lionel Bicknell Constable (1828–1887);

Possibly his sale, London, Christie's, 2 March 1874, lot 167, to 'Reynolds' (as 'The White Horse. A sketch for the picture');

With Arthur Tooth and Sons Ltd., London, by March 1950 (stock number 2386);

By whom sold, 2 May 1950, to a lady; 

Private collection, Switzerland;

Anonymous sale, London, Christie's, 30 November 2000, lot 3;

There acquired by the present owner.

Literature

J. Mayne, 'John Constable's sketches and studies', in Antiques Review, no. 1, December 1950, pp. 21–23, reproduced pl. 1;  

L. Parris and I. Fleming-Williams, Constable. Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate exh. cat., London 1976, p. 108, under no. 165;

R. Hoozee, L'opera completa di Constable, Milan 1979, p. 111, no. 253, reproduced;

G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vols, New Haven and London 1984, text vol., pp. 28 and 30, no. 19.3, plates vol., reproduced pl. 70;

L. Parris and I. Fleming-Williams, 'Book Review of The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable', in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXVII, no. 984, March 1985, p. 167; 

C. Rhyne, 'Constable's first two six-foot landscapes', in Studies in the History of Art, vol. 24, 1990, p. 124, reproduced fig. 17;  

J. Hayes, The Collections of the National Gallery of Art. Systematic Catalogues: British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, Washington 1992, p. 33, reproduced fig. 5 (as 'Willy Lott's House and Thatched boat Shelter and Barn');

A. Lyles (ed.), Constable. The Great Landscapes, exh. cat., Tate, London 2006, p. 134 (as a sketch for the painting at the Frick).  

Catalogue Note

Painted in 1817, this highly important sketch is an early preparatory study for The White Horse (The Frick Collection, New York, fig. 1), the first of Constable's famous ‘Six-Footers’, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819. One of the artist’s most celebrated works, The White Horse is a seminal painting in the history of British art and only a very small number of preparatory studies were made for it, including the full-scale sketch now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (fig. 2). This is the finest and most important of only two known small-scale compositional oil sketches that relate to The White Horse. Possibly painted on the spot in the summer of 1817, with the artist responding directly to the landscape, the composition echoes that of a small pencil drawing of the scene made in a sketchbook Constable used in Suffolk in 1814 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, fig. 3) and represents a crucial development in the particularly complex evolution of this celebrated composition. 

The finished painting depicts a view from the right bank of the River Stour, at Dedham Vale, near East Bergholt, showing a small reach of the river just below Flatford Lock looking towards Willy Lott's Cottage. This sketch concentrates on the central part of the composition, with Willy Lott's Cottage – one of the key images in Constable’s art – seen through the trees and a thatched boat shed on the far bank of the river, both of which appear in the finished painting. A smaller, horizontal but related oil sketch (Private collection, fig. 4) and a small study in oils of the barge and horse itself (Private collection, fig. 5), together with a pencil drawing of the boathouse (Private collection), represent the only other known preparatory works by the artist for this pivotal and iconic composition.1 John Constable is one of the most celebrated and influential of all English romantic artists, and his most famous paintings are among the best-loved images in British Art.


THE WHITE HORSE

Accurately described by the artist’s friend and biographer, C.R. Leslie as ‘on many accounts the most important picture Constable ever painted',2 The White Horse represents a vital turning point in Constable’s career. It was the first 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 (The Frick Collection, New York); The Young Waltonians, 1820 (The National Gallery, London); The Hay Wain, 1821 (The National Gallery, London); View of the Stour near Dedham, 1822 (Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino); The Lock, 1824 (Private collection); 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 fame ever since. For many they define the pinnacle of the artist’s career.

The White Horse was critically well received at the Academy exhibition of 1819 – the correspondent for the Examiner praising it for being more like nature than any existing landscape painting and compared Constable’s art favourably to that of Turner; whilst the Literary Chronicle wrote: ‘What a grasp of everything beautiful in rural scenery’ and predicted that Constable would soon be the leading landscape painter in the nation.3 The only painting that Constable exhibited in 1819, it was therefore off the back of the success of The White Horse that Constable was finally elected to the long-awaited position of Associate Member of the Royal Academy (A.R.A), by a substantial majority of his peers, that same year – ultimate validation that the transformation of his artistic practise, which he had been working steadily towards for the last seven years, had paid off. Importantly, it also sold – and sold quickly – for the substantial price of 100 guineas (without the frame), thus giving Constable a measure of commercial success and independent financial security that he had not previously known in his career. The painting was bought by his close friend Archdeacon Fisher, and it is a measure of the significance that the artist placed upon The White Horse that in 1829, when Fisher was heavily in debt, Constable bought the painting back at its original price of 100 guineas and retained it for the rest of his life. 

The gestation of The White Horse was a particularly complicated and protracted one for the artist, however, and the painting was ultimately the fruit of a seed of ambition that had begun much earlier and required many years of labour to fulfil. It is in this complex gestation and development that the present sketch plays such an important role.  

   

THE SKETCH AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF 1817 

This seminally important sketch has been almost unanimously dated by scholars to 1817 – a pivotal but particularly complex period in Constable's art. The previous year two seismic events had taken place in the artist’s life. In May his father, Golding Constable, had died and the ensuing division of family property left him with an income sufficient to finally marry his long-time love, Maria Bicknell, despite her family’s opposition. This he duly did on 2 October that year. His life, which had hitherto been a peripatetic existence, partly based in Suffolk and partly in London, now became more settled in the capital, and in December the newly married couple moved into their first home at 63 Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury. He would in future spend little time in his native Suffolk, focusing instead on his life and career in London, and his determination to paint larger, more ambitious landscapes.

The White Horse was painted entirely in his London studio, the first time he had made a painting on a large scale of a Suffolk subject without direct reference to the motif. It was probably for this reason that he adopted, again for the first time, the device of painting a full-scale sketch (also painted in the studio in London), in order to map out the composition on a one-to-one scale, prior to starting work on what would be the finished canvas. Hitherto Constable’s practice, up to 1816, had been to paint landscapes out of doors, on the spot, with direct reference to the landscape itself – often referred to as en plein air. As Rosenthal has documented, the size of canvas Constable usually preferred for open air paintings was either 13 x 20 in., 20 x 24 in. (the size of the present canvas), or 20 x 30 in.4 It has long been established, however, that by at least 1814 he was not only sketching out of doors, but painting, or at least mostly painting, fully finished exhibition paintings on the spot, directly in front of the motif itself. One such is Wivenhoe Park (National Gallery of Art, Washington), painted largely in the summer of 1816 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1817, which is almost forty inches wide. By 1816, however, with his ambition growing, it became clear that he had taken on-the-spot painting as far as he could and was beginning to realise the limitations of this method. As we have seen, if he was to compete with the likes of Turner, John Martin, James Ward and Augustus Wall Callcott, all of whom were exhibiting monumental landscapes at the Academy, he would need to paint on a far more ambitions scale. A scale that was simply not logistically possible out in the open fields.   

In painting both the full-scale sketch and the finished painting, however, entirely in the studio he would have needed to refer to abundant source material brought back with him from Suffolk. Between mid-July and October 1817, Constable and his wife had made one last long trip to East Bergholt for an extended summer holiday – what has been described as Constable’s ‘valedictory’ visit to the place of his birth.5 The place, in his own words, that had ‘made him a painter’. Possibly anticipating, as Reynolds suggested, that this might be his last chance to record his native landscape in detail, before the cares of a family caught up with him, Constable avidly made a large number of drawings and oil sketches on this trip. Back in London in November of that year he showed these sketches to his close friend Joseph Farington, and there are several references to them in the latter’s diary. On 11 November 1817 Farington wrote: ‘Constable called & told me he had passed 10 weeks at Bergholt in Suffolk with his friends, & painted many studies’; and on 24 November he noted that Constable’s fellow artist, W. R. Biggs, R.A., had spoken ‘favourably of Constable’s oil sketches done in the summer.’ On 31 January 1818, Farington further noted ‘Constable I called on and saw him and his wife & sat with him some time… I saw a number of his painted sketches & drawings done last summer, but he had not any principal work in hand’.   

Despite the wealth of evidence for the existence of many oil sketches produced in the summer of 1817, only one recorded work is securely dated to this period, and that has been untraced since it appeared in C.R. Leslie’s sale at Foster’s in 1860 (Reynolds, no. 17.24). As Reynolds suggested, however, there are strong reasons for regarding a sketch of East Bergholt Church in the Durban Museum and Art Gallery (Reynolds, no. 17.30, fig. 6) as belonging to this group as well, based on its handling and the fact that it closely relates to a pencil drawing of the same composition found in a sketch book that is known to have been used by Constable in Bergholt in 1817. The Durban work, which is of a comparable size to the present sketch, is similarly unfinished in many details, especially the foreground trees, which, in Reynolds’ view, supports the idea that they are both open-air studies on a scale which would previously have been unusual in Constable’s work but which would better serve him as aides-mémoire back in his studio in London and notably impress those friends to whom he may have shown them. Like the present sketch, the Durban picture also relates to a smaller pencil sketch of the same view (Private collection, New York), and on one level the two sketches both form part of a typical progression in the development of Constable's compositions – from initial topographical pencil sketch, through various stages of oil studies, to final exhibited painting. Evidence of the progress from the initial drawing, and Constable's desire to record as much topographical information as possible for reference back in his studio, can be seen in the inclusion of the roof line of two barns behind the thatched boat shed, which do not appear in the small pencil sketch of 1814. These form part of a cluster of buildings known as Gibbonsgate Farm and do appear in the finished painting that Constable exhibited in 1819. Other noticeable differences between this sketch and the earlier pencil drawing include the reflections on the water and the attention that the artist has paid to the sky and the balance of light.     

The exact nature and function of this sketch within this particularly complicated evolution of Suffolk motifs towards the first of the great ‘Six-Foot’ canvases, as is true of many of Constable's sketches, has been much debated, however. In 1950 the art historian and Constable biographer Jonathan Mayne was the first to identify the inherent difficulty in deciding how to categorise the present work. Recognising two distinct types of preparatory work by Constable – what he termed oil-sketches (i.e. works painted from nature) and oil-studies (i.e. intermediary works painted in the studio, which ‘fuse the raw elements of the sketch or sketches into a coherent whole’) – which had distinct functions in the process of his art, he acknowledged that ‘there are some paintings which seem to partake of both characters at once; a good example is the sketch-study for The White Horse' (the present work).6 Mayne concluded, however, that it seemed likely that the picture was worked up in the studio from the 4 ¼ x 3 inch pencil sketch of 1814 now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Reynolds 14.32, p.66).

Graham Reynolds, in his 1984 catalogue raisonné of the artist’s late works, was the first to suggest that it may be one of the sketches of 1817 referred to by Farington and thought it likely to be a plein air sketch. This he based in part on the handling of the rushes on the right, which is very similar to the treatment of foreground foliage in other known on the spot sketches from this year, and the introduction of the barn roof above the boat shed, which is not seen in the V&A drawing of 1814.7 Charles Rhyne supported this view and described this, and another smaller horizontal sketch of the view, as appearing to have been ‘taken from nature probably in 1817’.8  

In the catalogue to their landmark monographic exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1990, Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams identified several works which they believed belong to this group of sketches made in the summer and autumn of 1817; including Fen Lane, East Bergholt (Tate Gallery, London, Reynolds 16.107), a large oil on canvas (68.5 x 91.5 cm.) almost certainly painted entirely out of doors; and Dedham Lock and Mill (Tate Gallery, London, Reynolds 20.15, fig. 7) – for which, in both cases, there are related pencil studies of the composition. Michael Rosenthal, writing in Apollo, also in 1990, independently came to the same conclusion about the date and nature of Fen Lane, East Berghold, and endorsed Parris and Fleming-Williams’ view (previously published in 1985) concerning the date of Dedham Lock and Mill.9 This is significant for the fact that both pictures share considerable similarities with the present work, particularly in the handling of foreground foliage and in the way that some areas of the composition have been worked up to a greater degree than others. The latter painting, especially, shares a remarkably similar level of ‘unfinished-ness’, with the central part detailed out but elsewhere, particularly in the peripheral areas, only the essential hues have been laid in. As Parris and Fleming-Williams suggested, if Constable suspected that this 1817 holiday would be his last chance to gather a quantity of pictorial material in Suffolk, it would have been natural to work in this way, saving time by taking his paintings just far enough to capture the essential topography and atmospheric mood and leaving those bits that he could paint from memory, or without reference to the actual scene, until back in the studio.10 As in those sketches, so here, the least finished parts of the picture are particularly the foreground detail which he would probably have counted on being able to finish indoors, back in the studio. If indeed he needed to take accurate reference of such details in a sketch that was primarily intended to capture the atmospheric impression of the landscape, focusing on the balance of light in the sky and its reflection on the water, or even intended to work it up further. This view is strengthened by the fact that many of the elements of foreground detail that Constable incorporated in the finished painting of The White Horse can be found in a sketchbook he used in 1813, including the reeds, the waterlilies and the wooden posts in the left foreground. The boat moored by the thatched boat house, seen in the finished picture but in none of the preparatory sketches, is based upon a drawing in the Courtauld institute of Art, London, which was also used for The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.11

Following recent inspection of the present work, Anne Lyles believes that the theory, first suggested by Reynolds, that this painting belongs to the group of sketches Constable painted in Suffolk during the summer and autumn of 1817, is correct. Whether or not it is a plein air sketch, painted on the spot in front of the view itself, or a compositional sketch worked on in the studio, remains, she believes, a matter of debate, however. Whilst it is very possible, perhaps even likely given the similarity in handling to other known plein air sketches from the period, it is equally possible that the function of the present work was as an ‘intermediary’ sketch, part of the artist’s process of transforming his imagery from the faithful naturalism that characterised his work pre-1816, to a more conceptual form of representation as his ambitions grew in the years around his move to London. Lyles has written extensively on this aspect of Constable’s art, and specifically the role Constable’s intermediary sketches played in the development of his art – what she refers to as the artist’s ‘transformation of nature into art’.12

As Lyles has shown, a profound understanding of both the period and context in which they were made is essential to understanding the function of Constable’s sketches. For he was an artist for whom the very process of painting was a vital tool in the continuous endeavour to produce a more naturalistic art. Whilst he undoubtedly drew, sketched in oil and painted finished pictures on the spot in the open air, particularly in the period up to 1817, he was also busy creating compositional studies in his studio, expanding and elaborating on compositions he had first worked out in the fields and lanes around East Bergholt and along the banks of the Stour, and developing them towards the monumental works of art that he would exhibit at the Academy throughout the rest of his life. These compositional studio studies were a key component in the shift from what had previously been an essentially mimetic artform to a more synthetic form of representation; the transition from an experimental, but essentially self-taught young painter attempting to stay true to a literal conception of naturalism, to one of the greatest and most ground-breaking artists of the nineteenth century; an artist who, whilst remaining true to a deeply held belief in naturalistic art, would come to produce some of the most lyrically beautiful landscapes ever produced in British art.  

Other such intermediary cabinet sized paintings of his native Suffolk landscape, worked to a varying degree of ‘finish’, from around this period include another view of Willy Lott’s cottage from across the Stour, known as The Valley Farm (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), which has been variously dated to circa 1815–18, and was considered by Reynolds as representing an intermediary stage in Constable’s progress towards his final conception for a painting of the same name which he finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835; and a view of Dedham Vale (Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts, Japan), which scientific analysis by Sarah Cove in the 1990s demonstrated was painted in two different periods and forms an intermediate stage between an open air sketch of 1802 (Reynolds 02.7) and Dedham Vale in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, that Constable finally exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1828 (Reynolds 28.1).

Recent infrared reflectography of this picture reveals that it was painted spontaneously, with no recourse to under drawing, save for a single ruled horizon line typical of Constable’s practise, with the artist working directly in oil paint upon the canvas. Further, x-radiography conducted by the Courtauld Institute shows that the clouds, the rood of the boat house on the right and the wall of Willy Lott’s cottage were painted with pigments containing a proportion of lead white; whilst a large white shape visible in the left centre of the picture, roughly corresponding to the area covered by the trees and reed bed, but which does not appear to correspond to elements in the visible composition, suggests that the sketch was painted re-using a canvas that had already been painted on. This is also typical of Constable’s sketches, particularly at this period when he was yet to achieve a measure of financial success from his art. Recent scientific analysis has shown that a number of his sketches were painted over earlier portraits that he had clearly abandoned and remained hanging around in his studio. Whilst this new evidence does not resolve either way the question of whether this sketch was painted on the spot or in the studio, it does suggest that the picture was always intended as a sketch or study and demonstrates an artist working freely and spontaneously, mapping out his composition as he goes.

 

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...' John Constable

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 Nayland, 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-Nayland, 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; 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 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 London night soil (i.e. manure – both horse and human!) to spread on the fields as fertiliser.

Constable’s love for the essentially flat and un-emphatic landscape of his native Suffolk, with its ‘gentle declivities, its woods and rivers…’,13 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. These are the scenes of Constable’s childhood and he knew 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 work as an ‘admirable instance of the picturesque’,14 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 Turner. 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 Gustave 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 subject – The White Horse – 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 Pissarro 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, or the landscapes of Alfred Sisley and Vincent van Gogh, 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 on the work of earlier nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters: ‘I may be quite wrong’, he said, ‘but I can’t see Van Gogh’s Boots without Constable behind them’.15

 

NOTE ON PROVENANCE

This painting was with the London art dealer Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1950, as is confirmed by the presence of their gallery label on the back of the frame, who sold it to an unknown female collector in Switzerland on 2 May that year.16 A note in the files at the Witt Library gives the provenance of the picture, as known to Tooth, as having belonged to a John Miller in 1858, and later in the collection of the Lancashire Mill owner and Conservative Member of Parliament William Henry Houldsworth (1834–1917), who lent it to the Glasgow Fine Art Loan Exhibition at the Corporation Galleries in 1878, no. 118. If this is true, then it cannot be the sketch that was sold in Lionel Constable’s sale at Christies in 1874, lot 167, having been owned by Miller as early as 1858. However, the entry in the catalogue for the painting exhibited at Glasgow in 1878 describes it as ‘A River Scene. Sky with rolling grey clouds, edged with white. Wooded distant landscape, through which a wide river comes. Bank with a tree on the left foreground’. This description does not particularly fit with the composition of the present work, which can hardly be described as a ‘distant’ landscape, and omits to mention such prominent features as Willy Lott’s cottage and the boat house, both of which are key features that clearly relate to the famous and much celebrated composition of The White Horse. By contrast, the painting included in Lionel Constable’s 1874 sale is specifically described in Christie’s catalogue for the auction as ‘The White Horse. A sketch for the picture', which exactly fits the composition of this painting. The financial records of Arthur Tooth & Sons Ltd., held at Tate Britain, are currently closed under the Data Protection Act, making it impossible to discover exactly where they acquired this painting. However, given the passage of over thirty years between the death of William Henry Houldsworth in 1917 and Arthur Tooth’s acquisition of the painting in 1950, it seems likely that Tooth, or whoever owned the picture in the interim, simply made a mistake and confused the painting they had acquired with that exhibited at Glasgow in 1878. Moreover, Graham Reynolds, who must have been aware of this alternative provenance when he published his 1984 catalogue raisonné of The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, appears to have dismissed it, suggesting instead that it is the painting that was included in Lionel Constable’s sale.  

We are grateful to Anne Lyles, former Curator of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Art at Tate Britain and lead curator of Constable: The Great Landscapes, for her assistance with the cataloguing of this lot and for endorsing the attribution following first-hand inspection. We are also grateful to Mark Evans, Head of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum for endorsing the attribution following first-hand inspection.  

1 See Reynolds 1984, text vol., pp. 30–31, nos 19.3, 19.4 and 19.5, and plates vol., pls 70–72; and Sotheby’s, London, Early British Paintings, 9 July 2009, lot 26.
2 C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 1843, J. Mayne (ed.), London 1951, p. 76;
3 Quoted in Reynolds 1984, p. 28.
4 M. Rosenthal, ‘A Constable re-appearance. Fen Lane and the road to Damascus’, Apollo, vol. CXXXII, no. 346, December 1990, p. 403.
5 Reynolds 1984, p. 28.
6 Mayne 1950, p. 22.
7 Reynolds 1984, reproduced fig. 1164.
8 Rhyne 1990, p. 124.
9 Rosenthal 1990, pp. 402-06.
10 London 1990, p. 185.
11 Reynolds 1984, p. 28
12 See particularly A. Lyles, ‘Nature or Art? Constables sketches and studies’, in Landscape, Innovation and Nostalgia. The Manton Collection of British Art, J.A. Clarke (ed.), New Haven and London 2002, pp. 146–67.
13 John Constable’s Discourses, R.B. Beckett (ed.), Ipswich 1978, pp. 12–13. 
14 From a letter from Constable to Archdeacon Fisher, in John Constable’s Correspondence, VI, The Fishers, R.B. Beckett (ed.), Ipswich 1970, p. 155.
15 Lucian Freud, quoted at the time of the exhibition ‘Constable: Le Choix de Lucian Freud’, held at the Grand Palais, Paris, 2002–03.
16 We are grateful to the staff in the Reading Room at Tate Britain for their assistance in providing information on the provenance of the painting from the Tooth Archive. Beckett (ed.) 1978, pp. 12–13.

 

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