John Constable

Self-Portrait

1806

View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Artist
John Constable 1776–1837
Medium
Graphite on paper
Dimensions
Support: 190 x 145 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1984
Reference
T03899

Summary

This pencil sketch is Constable's earliest dated drawing from 1806, the year of his most prolific output, and one in which he appears to have worked predominantly in pencil and watercolour. That year he made numerous sketchbook drawings of young women and other members of households in which he stayed at Ipswich, Tottenham and Epsom between June and August. In September and October he made a seven week tour of the Lake District, executing a major series of drawings and watercolours. While in the Lake District he stayed part of the time with the Hardens, Mrs Harden describing him as 'a genteel handsome youth' (in D. Foskett, ed., John Harden of Brathay Hall 1772-1847, Kendal 1974, p.29). Some months later, Mrs Fisher, wife of the Bishop of Salisbury, described Constable's countenance as 'like one of the young figures in the works of Raphael ... His appearance is that of one "guileless"' (K. Cave, ed., The Diary of Joseph Farington, IX, New Haven and London 1982, p.3204).

Constable made this drawing in March, when he was presumably in London. A profile self-portrait such as this requires the use of two mirrors. Although generally recognised today as the finest portrait of Constable, and frequently reproduced in recent literature on him, this drawing was more or less unknown outside the Constable family until it was included in the 1937 Wildenstein Gallery exhibition John Constable, R.A.: His Origins and Influence. It seems to have become widely known only after Jonathan Mayne reproduced it as the frontispiece to his 1951 edition of C.R. Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable. Earlier editions had used Leslie's own images of Constable.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.17-18, reproduced
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, p.21, reproduced

Terry Riggs
February 1998

Display caption

John was born in 1776, the fourth child of Ann and Golding Constable. When his older brother proved unfit to take over the family business, John was employed in his father’s mills to learn his trade.

According to his first biographer, Constable was known in the neighbourhood as the ‘handsome miller’, being ‘tall and well formed … with a fresh complexion, and fine dark eyes’. By 1799, his father allowed him to study art in London, and he entered the Royal Academy Schools. This drawing, made in 1806, is generally recognised as one of the finest portraits of the artist.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

John Constable 1776-1837

T03899 Self-Portrait 1806

Pencil 190 x 145 (7 1/2 x 5 11/16) on wove paper 237 x 145 (9 5/16 x 5 11/16)
Inscribed 'March 1806' at bottom of image, preceded by 'April', which has been covered by pencil shading; also inscribed in later hands 'March 1806' b.l. and 'Hugh' (the artist's grandson Hugh Golding Constable) on the back
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Prov: By descent to the artist's great grandson John Hugh Constable (1896-1974); his widow Eileen Constable, who died 1984; bt from her executors by Tate Gallery
Exh: John Constable, R.A., his Origins and Influence, Wildenstein, April-May 1937 (105); John Constable, R.A. , Colchester Public Library 1950-1 (3, repr.); The Constable Family - Five Generations, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, June-Sept. 1954 (2), South London Art Gallery, Camberwell, Oct.-Nov. 1954 (29) and subsequent tour to Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Birkenhead, Southsea, Worcester, Leamington, Blackpool 1954-5; John Constable 1776-1837, Manchester City Art Gallery, April-June 1956 (94); British Portraits, RA, Nov. 1956-March 1957 (704); First Loan Exhibition, The Minories, Colchester, May-June 1958 (25); John Constable: The Natural Painter, Auckland City Art Gallery, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Sept.I973-Jan.1974 (45, repr.); on loan to Tate Gallery 1975-84; Constable. Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, Tate Gallery, Feb.-May 1976 (58, repr.)

This is Constable's earliest dated drawing from 1806, a year in which he appears to have worked predominantly in pencil and watercolour. His works in these media in 1806 include two substantial groups: sketchbook drawings of young women and other members of households in which he stayed at Ipswich, Tottenham and Epsom between June and August; and a major series of drawings and watercolours executed on a seven week tour of the Lake District in September and October. Little is known about his movements at the beginning of the year but he was presumably in London in March when he made this drawing. A profile self-portrait such as this requires the use of two mirrors. Although generally recognised today as the finest portrait of Constable, and frequently reproduced in recent literature on him, T03899 was more or less unknown outside the Constable family until it was included in the 1937 Wildenstein exhibition. It seems to have become widely known only after Jonathan Mayne reproduced it as the frontispiece to his 1951 edition of C.R. Leslie's Memoirs of the Life of John Constable. Earlier editions had used Leslie's own images of Constable.

A Constable iconography is given in Richard Walker, National Portrait Gallery: Regency Portraits, 1985, I, p.129. The only other candidates for self-portraits are a pencil and chalk drawing of c. 18oo in the National Portrait Gallery (ibid., p.127 no.901) and an oil painting formerly in the Constable family (Christie's 22 April 1983, lot 53, repr. in col., bt in; Christie's 16 March 1984, lot 85).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.17-18

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