Salisbury was the home of Constable's patron, Bishop Fisher and his nephew - the artist's great friend and adviser - John Fisher. The magnificent cathedral at Salisbury was the stimulus for some of Constable's most moving landscapes. This oil study was executed during one of Constable's last two visits to the city in 1829, when he was planning what was to be his final and most brooding image of the cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited in 1831 (The Dowager Lady Ashton, on loan to the National Gallery, London). Constable had clearly discussed the subject of his next picture with John Fisher, who wrote to the artist, on 9 August 1829, 'I am quite sure the "Church under a cloud" is the best subject you can take. It will be an amazing advantage to go every day & look afresh at your materials drawn from nature herself' (quoted in Parris & Fleming-Williams 1991, p.361).
This work is a studio sketch, about a quarter of the size of the full-scale sketch (Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London) and final picture to which it relates. Of the various small oil studies which preceed it, this sketch is the closest in composition to the finished work. In particular, it introduces the idea of the driver and carthorses cooling themselves while traversing the river as a central feature. The study relates closely to a compositional drawing, dated November 1829 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), which features only a single horse and cart. In the completed work, the cathedral is made more prominent and the figures of the collie dog and his master are removed from the right of the composition. The most striking and Romantic feature of the painting, the enigmatic rainbow, is also missing from the study.
Typical of Constable's oil studies, the picture is executed with tremendous freedom, yet with an eye for composition and a varied palette. The overall effect is one of a fresh, breezy day, the rainclouds clearing away into the distance, to reveal blue patches of sky. The dark mass of trees on the left guides the eye towards the spire of the cathedral, which reaches up towards the light. In the foreground the activities of the carthorses and the man with his dog are highlighted with bold touches of red and yellow, while flecks of white pigment enliven the entire surface of the canvas.
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981, pp.140-4, no.36, reproduced p. 141, in colour.
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, pp.360-368, reproduced p.362.
8 December 2000