Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, which Constable began painting in 1830, shows the cathedral from the south-west, looking across the River Nadder from a point near a footbridge known as the Long Bridge. A team of three horses pulls a cart across the river from the left; cattle graze in the meadows in the right distance; and the centre foreground is occupied by a black and white sheepdog whose intent gaze is turned inwards towards the cathedral as if to direct the viewer towards the building or the storm that sweeps over it. The spire pierces a sky full of billowing clouds; a dark rain cloud hangs directly above and a streak of lightning flashes over the roof; but a magnificent rainbow arches over all, promising that the storm will pass. While the tall trees in the middle distance on the left are shaken by a squally breeze, the river’s surface is already glassy and smooth, reflecting the varied sky. Fresh raindrops glint and sparkle on the brambles in the foreground. Throughout much of the canvas, the paint is handled with a febrile, sometimes even frenzied excitement, especially in the foreground undergrowth, the trembling trees and the Gothic architecture of the cathedral. Laid on with brush and palette knife, the paint ranges from thick and three-dimensional in the brambles, to thin and almost translucent in the rainbow. The picture was exhibited by Constable at the Royal Academy in 1831 but never found a buyer. The painting remained in the artist’s studio – where he continued to retouch it – until his death in 1837.
Constable’s connection with the city of Salisbury first arose, and was then nourished, through two important friendships, with Bishop John Fisher and with his nephew Archdeacon (also John) Fisher, both important patrons. Constable made regular visits to stay with the Fishers in Salisbury from 1811, producing a substantial body of work featuring views in and around the city, and especially in the area around the cathedral where both Fishers had residences. In the 1820s, for example, Constable produced a number of variants of a mid-size painting showing Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds (Victoria & Albert Museum, London), the original commissioned by the Bishop himself. It was Archdeacon Fisher who, in the late 1820s, had originally encouraged Constable to paint a large version of a Salisbury subject as a distraction from the grief the artist was suffering after the death of his wife Maria in 1828. In a letter to Constable dated 9 August 1829 he advised: ‘I am quite sure that the “church under a cloud” is the best subject you can take’ (see R.B. Beckett (ed.), Collected Correspondence of John Constable, vol.6, Ipswich 1968, pp.250–1). The subject evolved through a number of related drawings and compositional sketches in oils, one of which, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows ?1829, is in Tate’s collection (Tate N01814). The rainbow that is such a dominant feature in the final painting is not only absent from the preliminary studies but is also meteorologically impossible given the conditions which the artist presents in the painting.
The highly charged and dramatic tone of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has led it to be reassessed in the context of the language and theory of the sublime in British art (see Lyles 2012, accessed 30 March 2013). However, Constable’s inclusion of a rainbow in a picture characterised for its highly turbulent handling of paint may perhaps reflect his spiritual reconciliation following a period of intense personal adversity. While Constable’s art is not generally thought of as symbolic, it is, however, highly autobiographical. The fact that the arc of the rainbow is seen in the painting to end at the exact spot marked by the Archdeacon’s house, Leadenhall, in the Cathedral Close, suggests a reading of Constable’s gratitude for his friend’s emotional support at a time of need.
Both Constable and Archdeacon Fisher were ardent supporters of the Anglican Church. Partly for this reason, the storm depicted in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has been interpreted by former Tate curator Leslie Parris as reflecting Constable’s fears for the future of the established church in England, already in his view weakened by the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and then increasingly threatened by the growing agitation towards a Reform Bill, which was passed in 1832, a year after the painting was finished (see Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991, p.367). However, while this interpretation may have grounding in Constable’s beliefs, the painting defies too literal or simple a reading. Contemporary critics were baffled by Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, finding it by turns ‘exaggerated’, ‘theatrical’ and ‘unnatural’. However, those same critics tended to find all of Constable’s late work challenging, owing chiefly to its expressive handling, just as they did the work of his contemporary J.M.W. Turner.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was described by Parris as representing the climax in any survey of the full cycle of Constable’s large landscapes and, quite simply, as the ‘greatest of his major set-pieces’ (Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991, p.366). Charles Robert Leslie, the artist’s first biographer, recorded that Constable himself believed that it conveyed ‘the full impression of the compass of his art’ and that one day it would probably ‘be considered his greatest’ picture (C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq. R.A., , London 1951, p.237).
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991.
Anne Lyles (ed.), Constable, The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2006.
Timothy Wilcox, Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape, exhibition catalogue, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum 2011.
Anne Lyles, ‘Sublime Nature: John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Chrstine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/anne-lyles-sublime-nature-john-constables-salisbury-cathedral-from-the-meadows-r1129550, accessed 30 March 2013.
Anne Lyles and David Blayney Brown
March 2012, updated March 2013