John Constable
Shipping in the Thames or Medway 1803

Artwork details

John Constable 1776–1837
Shipping in the Thames or Medway
Date 1803
Medium Graphite and watercolour on paper
Dimensions Support: 97 x 168 mm
Acquisition Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996
View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


79a Shipping in the Thames or Medway 1803

Grey wash over pencil on laid paper 9.7 x 16.8 (3 7/8 x 6 5/8)


79b Shipping in the Thames or Medway 1803

Grey wash over pencil on laid paper 9.8 x 16.7 (3 7/8 x 6 5/8); verso: another sketch of shipping, pencil, inscribed '5'


'Had I accepted the situation offered it would have been a death blow to all my prospects of perfection in the Art I love.' In a letter of 29 May 1802 (Beckett 1964, pp.31-2), Constable expressed his relief at having recently turned down the post of drawing master at the Royal Military Academy in Great Marlow. The decision seems to have prompted him, as he wrote in the same letter, to think 'more seriously on my profession than at any time of my life'. He had now become convinced 'of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynolds's observation that "there is no easy way of becoming a good painter" ... only ... by long contemplation and incessant labour'. It remained a cherished conviction. In 1830 he wrote of the precocious landscape painter R.P. Bonington (no.93), who had died two years before, that 'it is not right in a young man to assume great dash ... without study, or pains' (Beckett 1966, p.141).

Unlike Bonington, Constable was a slow developer. The son of a wealthy corn merchant from East Bergholt in Suffolk, he was already in his early twenties when he finally obtained his father's permission to leave the family business, moving to London where he entered the Royal Academy Schools. In 1802, realising that he had been 'running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand', he made a series of careful oil studies from nature of his native scenery near East Bergholt, in and around the Stour valley. It was a promising start, but Constable's subsequent progress as a landscape painter in oils was slow and intermittent, and during these early years of his career he was also painting portraits (see no.80) and altarpieces, though most of all he concentrated on drawing and watercolour (see no.81).

These drawings were made in the late spring of 1803, when Constable spent nearly a month on board the Coutts, an East Indiaman captained by his father's friend Robert Torin; the ship was sailing to China, and Constable joined it between London and Deal. He is said by his first biographer, C.R. Leslie (1794-1859), to have made as many as 130 drawings on the voyage, but fewer than fifty are known today (Reynolds 1996, 03.5-51), seven of which are in the Opp? collection [T08120, T08121, T08738-T08739 and T08741-T08743]. They are rapid sketches of the shipping he saw on the Thames, the Medway and along the coast, for the most part executed in pencil alone, though a few - like these two - have tonal washes of grey. During these 'experimental years of self-discovery', as they have been called (Fleming-Williams 1994, p.88), Constable was highly susceptible to the influences of other artists, and these early shipping studies have often been likened in style to the drawings of the marine artist Willem Van de Velde the younger (1633-1707), whose work Constable was certainly aware of about this time (Reynolds 1973, p.51). In fact, in their use of free-flowing, even wriggly lines, with affirmative pressure applied at either end of the pencil strokes (see especially no.79a), these shipping studies are even closer to some of Richard Wilson's chalk drawings which Joseph Farington, a former pupil of Wilson's, may perhaps have lent Constable to copy, just as he also lent him an example of one of Wilson's oils (Fleming-Williams 1994, pp.96-8).

When in 1837 Constable's son, Charles Golding Constable (1821-1879), heard of his father's death, he wrote to express his concern about the fate of the sketches Constable had made aboard the Coutts so many years before: being a sailor, Charles Golding took an especial interest in them (Fleming-Williams and Parris 1984, p.12). He was also anxious about the safekeeping of two of Constable's Brighton sketchbooks, no doubt thinking of the shipping studies his father had made there in the 1820s.

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.192 no.79a, reproduced in colour p.193

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