John Constable

Dedham Lock and Mill


Oil paint on canvas
Support: 546 x 765 mm
frame: 800 x 1017 x 114 mm
Bequeathed by George Salting 1910

Display caption

Dedham Mill, like that at Flatford, was owned and operated by Constable’s father. This sketch of it, showing Dedham church to the right, was probably painted on the spot during Constable’s long holiday with his wife Maria in Suffolk in 1817.

As it is unfinished, this work is particularly interesting in revealing Constable’s working methods at this date. Although some passages are painted in remarkable detail, other areas are only broadly blocked in, and much of the brown canvas ground is visible in the foreground and close to the trees on the right.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

N02661 Dedham Lock and Mill Circa 1819

Oil on canvas, 21 1/2×30 1/8 (54.6×76.5).

Prov: Perhaps the ‘Water Mill large unfinished oil ... reflections in water’ which Isabel Constable bequeathed to her niece Ella Constable 1888;1 probably in the anon. sale [by Edgar Colquhoun2] of works ‘Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1889, as the property of Miss Isabel Constable, deceased’, Christie's 28 May 1891 (134, ‘Dedham Mill’), bt. Wigzell £91. 7s.;3 ...; Louis Huth, sold Christie's 20 May 1905 (39; the sale stencil is on the stretcher), bt. Agnew for George Salting, by whom bequeathed to the National Gallery 1910; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919. Accession N02661.
Exh: Grosvenor Gallery 1889(263); Agnew's 1910(254); Tate Gallery 1937 (p.13, No.14); Two Hundred Years of British Painting, Public Library and Art Gallery, Huddersfield 1946(97).
Lit: Holmes 1910, p.85; Shirley 1937, pp.107, 120; R. B. Beckett, ‘Constable's “Dedham Mill”’, The Burlington Magazine, XCVII, 1955, pp.52–5; Chamot 1956, p.260; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Essex (4) No.9; Hoozee 1979, No.255.

Although Flatford Mill and its surroundings figure frequently in Constable's work, only around 1818–20 did he take much artistic notice of the other family watermill, at Dedham. Three finished version of the composition seen in an unfinished state in No.17 were produced in those years. The view depicted is from the Suffolk bank of the Stour, looking southwards to Dedham mill, lock and church. The composition was derived from an oil sketch perhaps made about 1810 and now in the V. & A. (Fig. 1, r. 113, h. 182).4 This shows little space to the left of the mill and the church is consequently more of a focal point. What seems to be the next representation, a drawing in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (Fig. 2),5 extends the design on the left to allow a glimpse of distant landscape and to give the mill a slightly more central place. No.17 and a finished version in a private collection (Fig.3, tg 1976 No.166, h. 256)6 follow this drawing in most respects. In these two pictures the strong horizontal accent of the middle-distance is offset by the tall trees at the right and the curving bank in the foreground. In two other versions, one dated 1820 (Fig.4, V.&A., r.184, tg 1976 No.180, h.274)7 and the other said by Leslie8 to have been painted the same year (Fig.5, Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, h.275),9 the horizontal emphasis is further reduced by the introduction of a boat at the left, its sail cutting vertically through the composition and its bow pointing diagonally across it; two horses now appear at the right instead of the single one seen before. A much smaller version, also with a boat at the left, was sold at Sotheby's in 1953 but has not been seen by the compiler.10

A curious detail of both No.17 and the privately owned version is the straight edge given to the bottom of the roof over the mill wheel: in the original oil sketch and in the V.&A. and Currier Gallery paintings a central lip projects below the bottom edge of the roof. In the Huntington drawing this detail is not very clear but the bottom of the roof does seem to be straight. Possibly Constable could not remember whether the oil sketch or the drawing was correct on this point or, more likely, he may have suppressed the lip when stressing the horizontal lines of the composition and restored it when, in the 1820 pictures, he wanted to break up the horizontality of the design.

At the British Institution in 1819 Constable exhibited a painting entitled ‘A Mill’ (78, size of frame 39×47 inches). This can reasonably be identified as one of the ‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ pictures: the title is appropriate and two of the existing versions date from the right period. Of the three full-size finished versions, the privately owned one is most likely to have been the exhibited work. Measuring 28×35 1/2 inches, its size accords best with the frame measurements given in the B.I. catalogue (which are, incidentally, almost exactly matched by the picture's present frame). A 39×47 inch frame around either the V.&A. or the Currier Gallery picture would be eight or nine inches wide. The former is, in any case, dated 1820 and is unlikely for that reason to have been exhibited in 1819. As well as being ascribed by Leslie to the same year, 1820, the Currier Gallery painting appears to have been acquired by Miss Spedding from Constable's daughter Maria in 1841,11 whereas the 1819 picture was sold at the exhibition to a Mr J. Pinhorn12 and is highly unlikely to have been back with the Constable family in 1841. On this evidence, and because it lacks the additional compositional devices of the other two pictures, the privately owned ‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ would seem to be the earliest of the finished versions and the one shown in 1819. Since the exhibition opened in January, the work was probably largely done in 1818.

As has already been indicated, No.17 relates more closely to the picture identified here as the 1819 exhibit than to the versions of 1820. Although the picture is unfinished, it is clear that Constable has not yet decided to bring on a boat at the left - he carries the landscape, which the sail of the boat would partly obscure, right across the background at this point. It is difficult to say whether No.17 precedes or follows the 1819 picture, and no less difficult to say why it is unfinished. No.17 may be Constable's first attempt at a full-size version of the composition, perhaps abandoned when he felt that the closely observed middle-distance threatened the overall unity of the picture and that the necessary adjustments could not be made on the same canvas. Whether or not he solved the problem in the 1819 exhibit would be immaterial to this argument. Or the 1819 exhibit may be the first of the two pictures. Since it sold quickly, Constable may have decided to repeat the composition in No.17, which might have been abandoned when he subsequently decided on alterations to the design. The fact that No.17 is more or less the same size as the 1820 pictures might support the argument that it follows the exhibited work, which has a much squarer format. There is no parallel case which would throw light on this problem. For the time being, at least, the order in which the two canvases were painted and the reason for the unfinished state of No.17 remain mysteries.

1. According to a copy of Isabel's will in the collection of Mrs E. Constable.

2. Although Christie's records definitely show that Colquhoun was the anonymous vendor (and some of the works bought in at the sale are still with his descendants), it remains to be discovered how he came into possession of the forty-one lots offered on this occasion, all of them works claimed to have been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery only two or three years previously as the property of Isabel's heirs. He does not seem to have been related to the Constable family, though he may possibly have been a friend, acting on behalf of one or more of the heirs. Colquhoun was himself a lender to the same Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, contributing paintings ascribed to Wilson and Gainsborough. It is conceivable that he purchased the Constables privately after the exhibition, but in that case why did he dispose of them so soon afterwards?

3. Five works entitled ‘Dedham Lock, on the Stour’ or ‘Dedham Mill’ were included in the 1889 exhibition. None was larger than 9 1/2×11 1/2 inches with the exception of No.263, measuring 21×30 inches and described as a sketch for what is now V.&A., r.184: this is clearly our No.17. In the 1891 sale of items from the exhibition two Dedham mill or lock subjects appeared: lot 134, which sold for £91. 7s., and lot 143, which went for £58. 16s. Other works from the 1889 exhibition were sold at Christie's on 17 June 1892 and these included a ‘Dedham Water-mill’ (lot 259), which fetched £21. Since No.17 was the largest of the Dedham pictures in the exhibition, it may have been the most expensive of the three that reached the 1891–2 sales. However, not all the works shown in 1889 went to auction and the matter is further complicated because not all Colquhoun's Constables had, in fact, been shown at the Grosvenor Gallery, so far as one can tell from a comparison of the titles and other details given in the exhibition and sale catalogues.

4. Oil on paper, 7 1/8×9 3/4 (18.1×24.8).

5. Pencil, 4 1/2×7 1/4 (11.5×18.4).

6. Oil on canvas, 28×35 1/2 (71×90.2); formerly in the collection of Thomas Pitt Miller, sold Christie's 26 April 1946(17), bt. Leggatt.

7. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8×30 (53.7×76.2); inscribed ‘John Constable. ARA. pinxt. 1820.’.

8. In a letter of 19 January 1841 (Coll. Mrs E. Constable) from Leslie to Constable's daughter Maria, who had disposed of the picture to her friend Miss Spedding. Leslie was sending Maria quotations from her father's letter to Fisher of 23 October 1821 because they ‘may perhaps be interesting to Miss Spedding as they shew what were the feelings with which he painted such pictures as the one she possesses, which represents, as you have probably mentioned to her, Dedham Mill on the river Stour’. Leslie goes on to say that Constable's letter, which is the famous one about ‘Old rotten Banks, slimy posts’ etc., was written in 1821, ‘the year after Miss Spedding's picture was painted’. A reference at the end of the letter suggests that Miss Spedding had only just become the possessor of the picture: ‘I hope soon to hear from you that Miss Spedding has received the picture in safety’.

9. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2×30 1/2 (54.6×77.5); inscribed ‘John Constable. London.’; formerly in the Spedding family.

10. Oil on panel, 11×14 1/2 (28×36.9), sold Sotheby's 15 April 1953 (46), bt. E. Stokes. The picture can just be discerned in a photograph of one of the rooms at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition, published in Sir Isidore Spielmann, Souvenir of the Fine Art Section, Franco-British Exhibition 1908, facing p.20. The work was No.22 in the exhibition, lent by George Hilditch. Presumably it was the ‘Sketch of a Mill on the Stour’ which ‘Hilditch’ bought at the Constable sale on 16 May 1838 (39).

11. See note 8 above.

12. W.T. Whitley, Art in England 1800–1820, Cambridge 1928, p.299. The Whitley Papers (Dept. of Prints and Drawings, British Museum) give The Literary Gazette, 1819, p.154, as the source of this information. I am grateful to Judy Ivy for telling me that J. Pinhorn is also named as the purchaser in Annals of the Fine Arts, IV, 1819, No.12, p.122.

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