Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

JOHN CONSTABLE
1776-1837

80 Mary Ann Bridges at the harpsichord with two of her sisters c.1804

Pencil on laid paper with traces of a discoloured fixative 23.7 x 18.8 (9 1/4 x 7 3/8)

T08148

On 1 June 1804 Farington wrote in his Diary that Constable had called, informing him that he had 'of late been much employed painting portraits large as the life for which He has with a hand 3 guineas, - without 2 guineas. - This low price affords the farmers &c to indulge their wishes and to have their Children and relatives painted' (vol.6, p.2340).

This pencil study, and a second one in a private collection (Reynolds 1996, 04.3), are studies for the portrait of The Bridges Family (Tate Gallery [N06130], fig.23) which Constable also painted that year. George Bridges (1764-1835) of Lawford Place, Essex, was a banker and merchant of some standing in Essex and Suffolk (Parris 1981, p.29), and no doubt could comfortably have afforded the higher price Constable would presumably have charged for this, his largest known group portrait. Bridges is shown with his wife, Mary, and their eight children in what was probably the drawing-room of Lawford Place; Lawford church can be seen through the window. The girl at the harpsichord is the eldest daughter, Mary Ann (b.1790), seen in this preliminary drawing with two of her sisters (or, possibly, a sister and brother). Constable has used a fixative on the drawing - a substance to fix or hold the graphite onto the surface of the paper - which had badly discoloured, though thanks to recent conservation work this is now less visible. In later years Constable was to use a fixative known as isinglass, a high-grade glue made from the swimming bladders of fish, which does not darken with age (McAusland 1994, p.17).

In 1800 Bridges and his merchant father, also George, had formed a partnership with a local entrepreneur, George Elmer, and eleven years later they took out a twenty-one-year lease on Mistley, the port on the Stour estuary from which Constable's father, Golding, shipped his cargoes of corn and coal to and from London, and where he rented granaries and a coalyard; indeed, as a 'tenant at will', Golding Constable was taken over in this transaction (Parris 1981, p.26). As fellow merchants at Mistley, Golding Constable and the younger George Bridges would have been in frequent contact with each other, but their families do not appear to have moved in the same social circles. In a letter of 31 January 1813 Constable's mother told him that Mr and Mrs Bridges and their son had recently made a call on his uncle, David Pike Watts, in London: she described how they had drawn up in their carriage, announced themselves with 'loud raps' and on leaving had each deposited their cards which, she informed Constable, his uncle had 'returned in the same "fashionably" friendly way', but adding that 'these are - customs & usages - unpractised - in Humble villages' (Beckett 1962, p.89; quoted Parris 1981, p.29).

It is said that at the time that Constable was painting The Bridges Family portrait, the young artist 'showed an admiration' for Mary Ann, and that his 'visits were in consequence discouraged' (MacColl 1912, p.268). Perhaps he was perceived as an inappropriate suitor. When, five years later, Constable transferred his affections to Maria Bicknell, daughter of the solicitor to the Regent and the Admiralty, he was to come up against similar objections from her grandfather, East Bergholt's rector, Dr Rhudde.

Anne Lyles

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.194 no.80, reproduced in colour p.195