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