Re-discovered Constable oil sketches to be sold at Christie’s, and what they tell us about Britain’s greatest landscape painter

On the second floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum is a small room tucked away near the back staircase of that vast, incredible building. In the first few years after I started working in the European Sculpture department at Christie’s I would come to the museum most weekends in an attempt to learn the discipline in depth. After an hour or two closely examining the bronzes and marbles, I would head up to this room as a sort of cathartic from my hard work; for the room is a like a window onto the rolling valleys of the English landscape, as it is home to an almost incomparable collection of outdoor sketches painted by John Constable. After hours of study, entering Constable’s world was as if I was opening a bottle of fine wine after finishing an exam.

Constable was a brilliant observer of the natural world. Brooding clouds, the sparkling dew of early morning, the long shadows cast by the declining evening sun; Constable did not just record how the landscape lay but captured the transient effects of light and weather. His art was ‘nature caught in the very act’. In that small room in the V&A you are aware that you are in the presence of a genius.

Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, oil on canvas, c. 1821 – 1822 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

I have recently moved from the sculpture to the paintings department at Christie’s and you can imagine my excitement that we have two such oil sketches in our upcoming auction. One of these has been unseen in public for over forty years, the other is a completely new discovery. Both of them are a delight to handle up close.

From early on in his career Constable painted such small sketches outdoors, a practice he continued throughout his life. He painted these on whatever came to hand; fragments of canvas, millboard or homemade paper. He told a friend these sketches were usually ‘done on the lid of my box on my knees’.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud , oil on paper, 22.2 × 31.1 cm, c. 1824-8 © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Constable was country boy. His father had a successful business running corn mills in Suffolk, which he was expected to take over. After years of father-son disagreements, Constable finally persuaded his reluctant father to let him pursue a career in art when he was in his early twenties. His mother was more supportive, but did not believe he could make a living out of painting landscapes, and so pushed him to take up portrait painting. In a way she was right, Constable painted portraits for most of his career to make ends meet, but despite his parents nagging doubts he was always sure of his true path; ‘landscape is my mistress – ’tis to her I look for fame’ he oft repeated.

Constable was thus a late-starter and his career was a slow burn. It was only when he was thirty that he started making lightning-quick sketches outdoors, to practice but also to inform his serious work in the studio. At this age he made a tour of the Lake District, and among these first exploratory sketches he painted a wonderfully fluid view of Leighton Hall in Lancashire (see below); this is one of the two sketches in our upcoming sale, and is a new discovery, having never been published before.

Study of Leighton Hall, Lancashire, the hills of the Lake District beyond, oil on board, 24.7 x 34..9 cm.
To be sold in Christie’s, Old Master Evening auction, 15 December (£80,000-120,000)

Constable shows Leighton Hall nestled in a bowl of parkland against a backdrop of distant peaks. And yet, this isn’t really a depiction of a house, or even of a landscape, but a study of light and weather. After we showed the picture to the Constable scholar Conal Shields he wrote this wonderful summary of what he thinks we are looking at:

‘there is here a palpable sense of the artist under pressure, responding in the limited time available to the complexity of the meteorological phenomena enveloping him, with spontaneous modulation of established concepts and sheer pictorial inventiveness, devising and revising as his brush flew over’.

The most perfect wall of Constable’s cloud studies at the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven

I have never liked the idea of the artist as a slave to nature, copying it methodically. I think they should use their imagination in tandem with what is in front of them. Constable rebelled against that idea. He told a fellow artist to ‘never do anything without nature before you. See those weeds and the dock leaves? I should not attempt to introduce them into a picture without having them before me’. He took a considerable interest in the developing science of meteorology and would often note on the reverse of his sketching board the exact conditions he painted in:

Very lovely evening – looking Eastward – cliffs & light off a dark grey sky – effect – background – very white and golden light.

Constable refused to be more impressive than nature. And yet, Constable’s cloud studies illustrate just how hugely impressive nature, in its simplest form, can be. And whilst many artists before him had had set out to paint the landscape with topographical accuracy, Constable captured its spirit.

Study of Cirrus Clouds, oil on paper, 17.8 x 14.1 cm., 1822 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Constable never left England.

It is a remarkable fact. Unlike Turner he never went to France or Italy to see her treasures, nor to Lake Geneva to see its majesty, not even to Wales or Scotland. He wasn’t interested.

He loved England and England has repaid him by (eventually) loving him back. He was a Suffolk boy, brought up in a village called East Bergholt on the River Stour, schooled nearby in Dedham, and this was where he painted most of his greatest landscapes, from the Hay Wain (National Gallery, London), to The Lock (sold at Christie’s in 2012 for £22.4 million).

This beautiful area has since been preserved, almost as it was in Constable’s day. If you visit today you can walk these landscapes, and still see the mill, the lock and the cottages of East Bergholt as they were when Constable was painting them.

 ‘Old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork — I love such things.’

John Constable

The second Constable sketch in the Christie’s auction was painted here. I think this is even more beautiful than the first.

It depicts the Old Mill Shed in Dedham. As we look through the open door of the dilapidated shed a young boy is shown crouched on a path, bathed in sunlight. Look at the warped timber and dishevelled thatching, the play of light on the open door and fall of water from the guttering. The picture could be seen as a valediction to Constable’s own careless boyhood.

A video I took in the Christie’s warehouse of Constable’s The Old Mill Shed, Dedham.
The Old Mill Shed, Dedham, oil on panel, 25.1 x 35.3 cm. To be sold in Christie’s, Old Master Evening auction, 15 December (£100,000-150,000)

The sketch was probably painted in 1816. This year was a key turning point in Constable’s life and career. His father died, giving him the financially stability to abandon portrait commissions and commit himself to landscape painting. It also enabled him to marry his great love Maria Bicknell.

Constable and Maria had fallen in love seven years earlier but their plans to marry had been thwarted by Maria’s grandmother. At that time Constable was a struggling artist and was not considered worthy. For those seven years they were forced apart, only meeting in secret, and Constable evidently struggled to cope with their hopeless situation.

To be finally able to marry Maria was a huge release for him. He was devoted to her. ‘All my hopes and prospects in life,’ he wrote to her, ‘are included in my attachment to you.’ They had seven children, and it was said that the babies were as often in their father’s arms as their mother’s.

But seven pregnancies in twelve years, plus the onset of tuberculosis, severely affected Maria’s health. Constable moved the family from central London to Hampstead in the hope this may help. It was at Hampstead that he embarked on the systematic recording of the skies. In these years, the character of such sketches changed, they became even more rapidly painted, often suggestive rather than descriptive, more colourful. They suggest a new confidence on Constable’s part, a new urgency.

With no improvement in Maria’s heath, Constable uprooted the family again, this time to Brighton. Maria was in terrible decline, vomiting, bleeding, fever, her speech becoming no more than a whisper.

‘Although Constable appeared in his usual spirits in her presence, before I left the house, he took me into another room, wrung my hands, and burst into tears, without speaking’

Letter written by his friend Charles Leslie in 1828

Constable painted this view (below) outside Brighton at the peak of his distress. The undoubted melancholia to the setting sun has been interpreted as a reaction to his darkening mood.

Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil on paper, 20 x 24 cm., © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Maria died a few months later, at the age of 41.

‘Hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel. God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the world is totally changed to me.’

Constable was inconsolable. Thereafter he dressed only in black. He cared for his seven children alone for the rest of his life.

But despite his increasingly anxious nature, Constable’s reputation continued to grow, and he was finally elected to the Royal Academy, where he began to give lectures on the history of landscape painting. This was a topic in which Constable himself has become the most interesting subject.

Brighton Beach, oil on paper, 12 x 29.7 cm., 1824 © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Constable finished his oil sketches in one sitting. They were painted alla prima (from the Italian, meaning ‘at first attempt’), a technique where layers of wet paint are applied on top of other layers of wet paint. These sketches were personal; they weren’t painted for sale but as impressions that could inform his larger, studio works.

He never exhibited any of these oil sketches. If he had, they would surely have qualified as the first Impressionist paintings.

Instead they were his private passion, and in every fluid, impromptu, stroke, laid on as he glanced up from where his knees held the painting board, out to the landscape beyond, you get an insight into his deep love for the English countryside. These are his immediate but everlasting record of his beloved England.

‘I have done a good deal of skying and I am determined to conquer all difficulties,’ he wrote to his friend after one happy day.

A Cloud Study, Sunset , oil on paper on millboard, 15.2 x 24.1 cm, c. 1821 © Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

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