John Constable

Malvern Hall, Warwickshire

1809

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
John Constable 1776–1837
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 514 x 768 mm
frame: 728 x 980 x 90 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by George Salting 1910
Reference
N02653

Display caption

This view of Malvern Hall in Warwickshire, seen from raised ground across a stretch of water, recalls a long tradition of country house portraiture which goes back to the seventeenth century. Yet it appears to have been painted for Constable’s own interest rather than being a formal, commissioned work. The sun is sinking below the trees to the left, which cast long shadows across the lawn at the back of the house. Above them hovers a flight of rooks. Many years later Constable wrote that the cawing of a rook was a ‘voice which instantaneously placed my youth before me’.

Gallery label, May 2007

Catalogue entry

N02653 Malvern Hall, Warwickshire 1809

Oil on canvas, 20 1/4×30 1/4 (51.5×76.9). Inscribed on the stretcher by J.H. Anderdon: ‘by John Constable, RA, vide Catalogue for 1822 No 219.’,1 ‘The Residence of General Lewis friend of the painter’,2 and ‘Lined in 1840 - N B on the original stretcher was written in red chalk Malvern Hall Warwickshire Augt 1. 1809 × apparently in the autograph of the painter’. Two damaged labels, now separately preserved, are inscribed with more or less irrelevant quotations from Leslie's Life about Constable's ‘Englefield House’ and ‘Stoke-by-Nayland’ compositions.

Prov: ...; James Hughes Anderdon by 18403 and in his sale, Christie's 30 May 1879 (111; the sale stencil is on the stretcher), bt. George Salting £99. 15s.; bequeathed by Salting to the National Gallery 1910; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1968. Accession N02653.
Exh: R.A. Old Masters 1878(61); Agnew's 1910(66); Tmee Eeumen Engelsche Kunst, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1936(17); Tate Gallery 1937 (p.12, No.7); La Peinture Anglaise, Louvre, Paris 1938(15); Chicago, New York and Toronto 1946–7(8); Richard Wilson and his Circle, City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham 1948–9(151) and Tate Gallery 1949(148); Venice 1950(1); Dvě Stolctí Britiského Malířství, Národní Galerie, Prague and Slovenská Národná Galéria, Bratislava, 1969 (not in catalogue); A Decade of English Naturalism 1810–1820, Castle Museum, Norwich 1969 and Victoria and Albert Museum 1970(4); Landscape in Britain c. 1750–1850, Tate Gallery 1973–4(223); Pittura inglese 1660/1840, Palazzo Reale, Milan 1975(137); Tate Gallery 1976(88).
Lit: Holmes 1902, p.245, 1910, p.85 (as ‘Spetchley’); Shirley 1937, pp.lxiii, 31, 36; Davies 1946, pp.34–6; R.B.Beckett, ‘Constable at Malvern Hall’, The Connoisseur Year Book, 1959, p.83; Davies 1959, pp.22–4; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Warwick (1–2) No.2; Hoozee 1979, No.67.

Malvern Hall, Solihull, Warwickshire, was the seat of Henry Greswolde Lewis (1754–1829), a wealthy widower who employed Constable on various commissions and errands (not alway to his liking) over a period of about twenty years. The house, which is now a school, was begun by Humphrey Greswold around 1690 but was completely remodelled and extended for H.G. Lewis by Soane in the 1780s. Constable may have been introduced to Lewis by Magdalene, Dowager Countess of Dysart, Lewis' sister. As mentioned under No.2, Constable was commissioned in 1807 to make copies of Dysart family portraits and it could have been at the Dysarts' town house in Piccadilly, where the work was carried out, that he met Lewis. The first of several portraits by Constable of Lewis was begun the same year (see under tg 1976 No.108; also Fig. 14).

Constable went twice to Malvern Hall, in 1809 and in 1820. A note on a drawing of the Hall made on the first visit (Fondazione Horne, Florence, Collobi No.54; tg 1976 No.89) indicates that he ‘Left Town for Malvern - Saturday July 15 1809’, while the inscription on No.5 suggests that he was still there on 1 August. The main purpose of this first visit was probably to paint the portrait of Lewis' thirteen-year-old ward, Mary Freer (dated 1809, Yale Center for British Art, h.68) but we know that he also painted a picture of the Hall on or following the visit: when trying to persuade Constable to return to the place in 1819, Lewis wrote ‘Malverne is going on, & is much improved inside & out, & would make a much better figure in Landscape than when you painted it last’ (JCC IV, p.64). The picture referred to seems very likely to be No.5, which shows the southern elevation. Also dating from Constable's first visit is a small oil sketch of the Hall, grounds and stable-block from the north-west (Fig.2, Private Collection, h.71);5 the reverse was used on 13 October 1809 for a sketch of a man resting in a lane near East Bergholt (tg 1976 No.90, h.70).

Following his second visit to Malvern Hall in September 1820, Constable produced another version of No.5 (Fig.3, h.325). This was sold from the collection of Marsden J.Perry at Parke-Bernet, New York on 7 May 1948 but its present location is unknown. Measuring 24 by 30 inches and inscribed ‘John Constable A.R.A. 1821’, it is more highly finished than No.5 and has a slightly different foreground: the bank no longer runs straight across but curves round, falling away at the right to accommodate a group of water-lilies.6 More water-lilies appear towards the centre, two swans are brought on at the right and swallows skim the surface of the lake.

Three versions are known of a companion picture, showing Malvern Hall from the front instead of from the lake: 1. Musée de Tesse, Le Mans, signed and dated 1821, h.328; 2. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. (Fig.4, tg 1976 No.202, h.326);7 3. Yale Center for British Art, formerly in the Chéramy collection, h. 327. One of these, or the ex-Perry picture, may be the ‘Malvern Hall, Warwickshire’ which Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822. The Williamstown and ex-Perry works originally belonged to H.G.Lewis' sister, Magdalene, Dowager Countess of Dysart, and were presumably commissioned by her. The early history of the 1809 painting, No.5, is not, however, recorded. It is unlikely to have been painted for Lewis, whose taste was for things genealogical and antiquarian rather than for landscape. His artistic interests are epitomised by the jobs he gave, or tried to give, Constable: his own portrait (repeated several times), Mary Freer's portrait, a miniature of Mary Freer's eye for a shirt-pin, a nine-foot high image of his Norman ancestor ‘Humphri de Grousewolde’ for the stairwell at Malvern Hall, and a sign for The Mermaid and Greswolde Arms Inn. On the other hand, Constable is not likely to have painted No.5 for his own interest. He made oil studies of houses which had some special meaning for him -his father's, for example - but a 20 by 30 inch canvas of the house and grounds of a new and not entirely sympathetic patron seems unlikely to have been done for his own pleasure.

A solution to this problem might seem to lie in identifying No.5 with the painting entitled ‘A landscape’ which Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1810. According to Ackermann's Repository of Arts (Vol.III, 1810, p.367), this was ‘a fresh and spirited view of an enclosed fishpond’, a description which might just be applied to No.5. Farington (Diary, 10 July 1810) recorded that Constable's exhibit had been purchased at the R.A. by the Earl of Dysart for thirty guineas, which would also make sense if the painting had been a view of Malvern Hall, the home of his late wife (Anna Maria Lewis), his sister-in-law (the Dowager Countess, Magdalene Lewis) and his brother-in-law (H.G.Lewis). However, several objections stand in the way of this identification: 1. Farington also referred to the 1810 exhibit as a ‘kitcat’, i.e. a picture measuring about 28 by 36 inches, whereas No.5 measures 20 1/4 by 30 1/4 inches; 2. No.5 is probably not sufficiently finished, in the foreground especially, for it to have been regarded by Constable or the R.A. as an exhibitable picture; 3. If Constable had the Earl of Dysart in mind when he painted No.5, he is more likely to have tried to sell it to him directly than to have exhibited it at the R.A. (with the vaguest of titles) in the hope that the Earl would notice it.

No preparatory material for No.5 is known. The drawing in the Fondazione Horne mentioned above shows the entrance front of the house, not the view from the park.

1. Constable exhibited a ‘Malvern Hall’ at the R.A. in 1822, as mentioned later in this entry.

2. ‘General’ is presumably a corruption of Lewis’ middle name, Greswolde (or Greswold, as he called himself until 1818, when research into his Norman ancestors inspired him to add the final ‘e’).

3. The inscription on the stretcher states that No.5 was ‘Lined in 1840’. We know that it was Anderdon who had it lined because he says so in his copy of the 1822 R.A. catalogue (see Davies 1959, p.24, n.13 to No.2653).

4. Private collection, oil on canvas, 31×26 (78.8×66), h.123. This is a copy by Constable, finished in 1811, of his original portrait of Lewis.

5. Oil on board, 12 1/8×12 7/8 (30.8×32.7). The identity of the building seen in this sketch has been debated in the past. However, the identification suggested in the catalogue of the exhibition Sketches & Drawings by John Constable from the Collection of Dr H.A.C.Gregory, M.C. (Arts Council 1949) was confirmed in 1978 by Ian Fleming-Williams and (on the spot) by D.R.Patterson.

6. Very similar to the group introduced in other paintings of this period: ‘The White Horse’ (1819), ‘Stratford Mill’ (1820) and ‘View on the Stour’ (1822).


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

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