John Constable

Cloud Study


On display at Tate Britain

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on paper on board
Support: 476 x 575 mm
frame: 605 x 705 x 70 mm
Presented anonymously 1952

Display caption

Constable’s oil studies of skies show a remarkable understanding of the structure and movement of clouds. Most also give a good impression of their three-dimensional volume.
The studies vary in size. This is one of only four examples he painted on a larger format. The larger the scale the more difficult Constable found it to balance crispness of detail with speed of execution. This is why the larger cloud studies tend to be more generalised. The inscriptions on the back – ‘11 o’clock’ and ‘Noon’ – indicate that this study took him about an hour to paint.

Gallery label, February 2004

Catalogue entry

N06065 Cloud Study 1822

Oil on paper, 18 11/16×22 15/16 (47.5×57.5), laid down on synthetic board 1966 (originally laid down on millboard backed with the same paper as used for the top surface). Inscribed by the artist in pencil on the original backing paper, now separately preserved: ‘27 augt 11, o clock Noon looking Eastward large silvery [? Clouds] wind Gentle at S. West’.

Prov: ...; John Robertson Reid (1851–1926); his sister Flora Macdonald Reid by December 1927 (when recorded in the National Gallery's copy of Holmes 1902: see Davies 1959); sold by her executors, Sotheby's 12 December 1945 (130), bt. Bode;...; acquired from Agnew's 1952 and presented anonymously to the National Gallery in memory of Miss Diana White 1952; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1961. Accession N06065.
Exh: Tate Gallery 1976(Supplement, 209a).
Lit: Davies 1959, pp.27–8; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Misc. I (4a) No.8a; John E. Thornes, The Accurate Dating of Certain of John Constable's Cloud Studies 1821/22 Using Historical Weather Records, University College London, Department of Geography, Occasional Papers No.34, 1978, pp.12–13, 27; Hoozee 1979, No.340.

In the years 1821 and 1822 Constable made an intensive study of skies at Hampstead, producing a large number of oil sketches showing clouds either alone or with a fringe of trees, buildings, etc. at the bottom. On 7 October 1822 he told Fisher that he had recently made ‘about 50 carefull studies of skies tolerably large’ (JCC VI, p.98). Leslie's comments on these 1822 studies, together with the dated examples which survive from both years, help us to differentiate the studies of 1821, which usually include land at the bottom and tend to be smaller, from those of 1822, which generally show only sky and are usually much larger: ‘Twenty of Constable's studies of skies made during this season, are in my possession, and there is but one among them in which a vestige of landscape is introduced. They are painted in oil, on large sheets of thick paper, and all dated, with the time of day, the direction of the wind, and other memoranda on their backs’ (Leslie 1843, p.32, 1951, p.94). Although no year is given in the inscription on No.22, the absence of landscape and the large size of the work suggest that it is one of the 1822 studies. A few crayon studies of clouds without landscape were made in 1819 (see TG 1976 Nos 169–72) but no ‘pure’ sky studies in oil carry dates before 1821 and none of the larger ones is dated before 1822. Meteorological evidence apparently also supports the dating of No.22 to 1822 rather than 1821. According to Dr John Thornes, the ‘large towering cumulus clouds pregnant with rain’ seen in No.22 accord well with contemporary weather records for 27 August 1822 but not for the same day in the previous year. In the few years after 1822, Constable could have been at Hampstead on 27 August only in 1825: in 1823 he was in Dorset that day (see No.25 below); in 1824 at Brighton. No sky studies of this kind, however, are known to have been made so late as 1825. Constable's ‘skying’ was, it seems, a short-lived activity, and it is one that remains not a little mysterious. None of the 1821–2 studies is known to have been used directly in a more complete painting, while the indirect use Constable may have made of them has never been properly investigated.

No.22 may have been one of the twenty studies in Leslie's possession, seventeen of which were included in his sale, Foster's 25 April 1860(86). Although in the passage quoted above, Leslie says they were ‘all dated’, his son R. C.Leslie inherited one which carried even less information about date than No.22 (C.R.Leslie, ed. R.C.Leslie, Life and Letters of John Constable, R.A., 1896, repr. facing p.115). He also inherited one which, being dated 26 August 1822, would seem to have been made the day before No.22 (ibid., p.115 note). The seventeen examples sold in 1860 were bought by the artist W.P. Frith, and some, if not all, of these appeared in his own sale, Phillips, Son & Neale, 13 December 1909(78), when they were bought by Parsons. The earliest certain owner of No.22, the Scottish artist J.R.Reid, may have acquired his study from Parsons but no evidence has been found to confirm this.

Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981


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