John Constable

Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’


On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1226 x 1673 mm
frame: 1507 x 1951 x 153 mm
Purchased 1935


This is a full-size oil sketch for the painting now in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art. Constable submitted the finished work to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1829, the year in which he was elected an Academician. He began painting six-foot canvases in 1818, in emulation of the works of the past masters of landscape such as Claude, Poussin and Rubens. He saw these large pictures as a means to gain further recognition as an artist, and to elevate what many considered the mundane subject matter of rural scenery. Unable to paint from nature on this scale, he turned increasingly to invention, and these large studio sketches enabled him to work out the compositional problems he was encountering in the preparation of his exhibition pieces. The oil sketch would be made either prior to, or simultaneously with, the finished picture.

Constable made a small pencil sketch of Hadleigh Castle near Southend in Essex in 1814, on his only visit to the area, when he wrote to his future wife Maria: 'At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place - it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea' (letter of 3 July 1814; in R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constable's Correspondence, II, Ipswich 1964, p.127). He returned to the pencil sketch fifteen years later, to develop the six-foot painting. He made a small preparatory oil sketch, probably in 1828 (Paul Mellon Collection, Upperville, Virginia), based on the drawing, but with the addition of a shepherd and his flock at the bottom left. In a pen and ink drawing made at around the same time (collection David Thomson), the composition has become decidedly more horizontal, having been extended on the right to include the distant Kent shore. A dog has replaced the shepherd's flock, and a tree has been added beside the castle's left-hand tower. The Tate's large oil sketch introduces cows in the middle-distance and gulls flying above the sea.

Constable's wife Maria died in November 1828, and the sombre, desolate tone of the work is generally assumed to reflect his mood at this time. In a letter of 19 December of that year, he wrote to his brother Golding: 'I shall never feel again as I have felt, the face of the World is totally changed to me' (in C.R. Leslie, ed. Hon. Andrew Shirley, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A., London 1937, p.234).

Further reading:
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, pp.243, 312-14, 355, reproduced in colour p.313

Terry Riggs
February 1998

Display caption

Constable made full-size sketches like this for many of his six-foot paintings. They allowed him to explore his ideas before committing them to the final canvas. The finished picture in this case was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1829. The composition originated in a minute drawing Constable made on a visit to the ruins of Hadleigh Castle in Essex in 1814, but this painting was not developed until around the time of his wife’s death in 1828. The resulting image of loneliness and decay is now often seen as exemplifying his desolate state of mind at the time.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

N04810 Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ Circa 1828–9

Oil on canvas, 48 1/4×65 7/8 (122.5×167.4), including strips added at the left and bottom (see text below).

Prov: Executors of John Constable, sold Foster and Sons 16 May 1838(31, ‘Sketch of Hadleigh Castle’), bt. Revd J.H. Smith £3. 13s. 6d.; his son Theyre Smith 1878;1 Theyre Smith's brother, Revd Clarence Smith (later Theyre) 1912; his daughter Mrs Violet Becket Williams 1918; purchased from her through Ernest Marsh by Leggatt's 1930, and sold by them to Percy Moore Turner; purchased from Turner in 1935 by the National Gallery with aid from the Claude Phillips Fund; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1956. Accession N04810.
Exh: Tate Gallery 1937(p.12, No.6); La peinture anglaise, Louvre, Paris 1938(28); Chicago, New York and Toronto 1946–7(36); Romantic Exhibition, Tate Gallery 1959(71); Tate Gallery 1976(261).
Lit: Sir Charles Holmes, ‘Constable's Hadleigh Castle’, The Burlington Magazine, LXVIII, 1936, pp.107–13 (see also pp.254, 294 for corrections); Shirley 1937, pp.lxxii-iii, 248; Davies 1946, pp.39–40; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Essex (23) No.54; R.B. Beckett, ‘John Constable's “Hadleigh Castle”’, The Art Quarterly, XXVI, 1963, pp.419–28; Reynolds 1965, p.111; Taylor 1973, pp.31–2; Karl Kroeber, Romantic Landscape Vision, Constable and Wordsworth, Madison, Wisconsin 1975, pp.44–60; Hoozee 1979, No.501.

This is the full-scale sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle. The mouth of the Thames - morning, after a stormy night’, which Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1829. The exhibited painting is now in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Fig.1, tg 1976 No.263, h.502).2

Before discussing the history of the composition, something must be said about the present appearance of No.33, since approximately one seventh of it seems not to be by Constable himself. At an unknown date strips of canvas about four inches wide were added to the left and bottom edges of the work; these, and the adjoining edges of the original canvas, were then painted on. The left-hand strip and the original canvas meet in a line which cuts through the left-hand tower of the castle and through the dog below it. X-ray photographs taken by the Courtauld Institute in 1975 (Fig. 2) show the additions very clearly and also reveal that part of the extra canvas at the bottom was taken from a figure painting (see the hand holding a writing implement). The paint on the added strips has none of the craquelure seen on the rest of the work and is incompetently handled; the left side of the left-hand tower is especially feeble, being misrepresented as a flat instead of a curved surface. There can be little doubt that someone other than Constable was responsible for the additions. There is also some evidence to show that whoever made them was not simply replacing damaged parts of the original canvas but was actually enlarging Constable's work by a few inches in one, if not both, directions. The 1975 x-ray photographs show a curved distortion of the weave pattern at the edges of the main canvas, a feature produced by the uneven tensioning of the canvas between the tacks at the original edges. If the main canvas had been larger in the first place, no such distortions would be found at these points. Diagonal lines of craquelure across the corners of the main canvas also mark the extent of the original. On this evidence one must conclude that Constable never included the whole of the lefthand tower in his sketch.

Constable's only recorded visit to Hadleigh Castle, near Southend, Essex, was in June 1814 during a stay with his friend the Revd Walter Wren Driffield at Feering. In a letter to Maria on 3 July he wrote: ‘while Mr. D - was engaged at his parish I <stroll'd> walked upon the beach at South End I was always delighted with the melancholy grandeur of a sea shore - at Hadleigh there is a <Cast> ruin of a castle which from its situation is really a fine place - it commands a view of the Kent hills, the nore and north foreland & looking many miles to sea’ (JCC II, p.127). A slight pencil sketch of the castle made on this visit (Fig.3, V.&A., r.127)3 was the starting point for No.33 and the painting exhibited in 1829. Reynolds (in his entry on r.127) records a pen drawing in which the composition sketched in 1814 is extended to the right, as in the final design.4 A pen sketch in the Fondazione Horne, Florence (Fig.4, Collobi No.69)5 corresponds fairly closely to the figure of the shepherd in the 1829 exhibit and slightly less so to the shepherd in No.33. No other preparatory material survives, unless a small oil sketch in the Paul Mellon Collection, h.658, corresponding in area to the 1814 drawing, can be accepted as authentic.6 A totally different view of the ruins is given in an oil painting in a private collection (h.500), which derives from another pencil sketch made on the 1814 visit.7 For a drawing of the castle which was formerly attributed to Constable see No.51 below.

It is not known when Constable began work on either the fullscale sketch or the final painting. When Abram Constable wrote to his brother on 13 February 1829 he said ‘You will now proceed with your Picture of the Nore - & I think it will be beautiful’ (JCC I, p.255: ‘The Nore’ was one of Constable's titles for the picture). This may suggest that Constable was about to return to the composition after an interval away from it. He may, for example, have started one of the two large canvases before Maria died in November 1828 and then put it aside, but there is no definite evidence on the point. He expressed his uncertainty about the final picture in a letter to Leslie on 5 April 1829: ‘Since I saw you I have been quite shut up here = I have persevered on my picture of the Castle which I shall bring to Charlotte [Street] early tomorrow morning - Can you oblige me with a call to tell me wether I can or ought to send it to the <pandemonium> Exhibition - I am greivously nervous about it - as I am still smarting under my election8 I have little enough of either self-knowledge or prudence- (as you know) and I am pretty willing to submit to what you shall decide - with others whom I value... I am in the height of agony about my crazy old walls of the Castle’ (JCC III, p.20).

As well as a greater degree of definition and ‘finish’, the exhibited painting differs dramatically from No.33 in its tonality. The sketch is coldly coloured in blues and whites and has few of the warmer tones of the final painting, which is much more expressive of the subtitle ‘morning, after a stormy night’: in the sketch we are conscious only of the storm. Among minor changes between the sketch and the painting may be mentioned the sheepdog. In No.33 the animal is partly on the repainted strip at the left but its head, pointing directly forward, appears to be original. In the final painting Constable substituted for it the dog, its head turned to the left, which had already done service in ‘The Cornfield’ of 1826 and was to figure again in ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ in 1831.

Despite its brighter mood, the 1829 exhibit preserves much of the restless character of the full-scale sketch. The lines from Thomson (Summer, 165–70) with which Constable captioned it in the catalogue were aptly chosen (quoted here in the form given in the catalogue):

The desert joys
Wildly, through all his melancholy bounds
Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep,
Seen from some pointed promontory's top,
Far to the dim horizon's utmost verge
Restless, reflects a floating gleam.

Constable's ‘Hadleigh Castle’, especially in its sketch form, is often seen as an expression of his unhappy state of mind following Maria's death. ‘I shall <I> never feel again as I have felt - the face of the World is totally changed to me’, he told his brother Golding on 19 December 1828 (JC:FDC, p.81). Images of desolation and ruin certainly occupied him more frequently from now on: among them were ‘Old Sarum’ (V.&A., r.359), which he saw as a fitting illustration of the ‘words of the poet - “Paint me a desolation”’; ‘Stonehenge’ (V.&A., r.395), ‘standing remote on a bare and boundless heath’; and the first engraving of ‘The Glebe Farm’, to which he said he had added a ruin ‘for, not to have a symbol in the book [English Landscape] of myself ... would be missing the opportunity’ (JCC IV, p.382). But the darker side of nature had begun to draw him some years before Maria died. ‘I wish’, he told Fisher in 1821, ‘it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, “he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge - yet he was born to cast a stedfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature”’ (JCC VI, p.74). The placid subjects which had earlier attracted him were joined in the 1820s by more dramatic material as he became increasingly conscious of the changefulness of nature - of the ‘bolder phenomena’ which could so quickly follow the calms. This polarity he was to characterise in the text to English Landscape as the ‘Chiar' oscuro of Nature’.

Lucas engraved two plates of ‘Hadleigh Castle’, the first on his own account and the second for English Landscape. The first (Shirley 1930, No.11), which is larger than the other, was begun in 1830 but not published until 1849. The plate for English Landscape (Shirley 1930, No.34) was engraved in 1832 and published in the fifth number of the work that year. Both seem to be based on the exhibited painting but each differs from it, the large plate, for example, giving the top of the principal tower a different profile, and the smaller plate extending the composition to the left of the towers. There are references in Constable's letters to Lucas in 1832 to ‘the Sketch of the Castle’ (JCC IV, p.377) and ‘the drawing of the Castle’ (ibid., p.390), possibly one and the same work; it has not been identified.

One of Constable's illustrations for Martin's edition of Gray's Elegy, first published in 1834, was freely adapted from the Hadleigh Castle composition. The engraving (Fig.5), by T. Bagg, illustrates Stanza III: ‘Save that, from yonder ivy-mantled tower ...’. Constable's preliminary drawing for it is in the V.&A. (r.355, tg 1976 No.300). Among the oil sketches and paintings sold from Isabel Constable's collection at Christie's on 17 June 1892 was a work entitled ‘Hadleigh: an illustration to Gray's Elegy’ (lot 253), but its present whereabouts is unknown.9

1. The descent of the picture in the Smith family is documented by Mrs Violet Becket Williams in a letter to Edward Spencer, who acted as her adviser over the sale of the painting. A photograph of this letter, together with other correspondence about the history of the picture, is in the National Gallery's dossier on the work. For information on the Revd J.H.Smith, see David G. Taylor, ‘New light on an early painting by John Constable’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXII, 1980, p.567.

2. Oil on canvas, 48×64 7/16 (122×164.5).

3. Pencil, 3 1/4×4 1/4 (8.3×11.1).

4. Pen, 4×6 5/8 (10.2×16.9). When Reynolds compiled his catalogue, first published in 1960, the drawing belonged to Mrs A.M. Austin, but the present compiler has not been able to trace this lady or the drawing.

5. Pen, 6×3 7/16 (15.2×8.8).

6. Oil on board, 7 7/8×9 1/2 (20×24.2). No.250 in the 1889 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition (‘Hadleigh Castle; Leigh Church in Distance’) was approximately the same size, 8×9 1/2 inches; unless it can be identified with the Mellon sketch, this work remains to be discovered

7. Courtauld Institute of Art, Witt Collection No.2873; Fig.6 in Beckett's 1963 article (cited under Lit.).

8. Constable's election as an R.A., which the President and other members had greeted with less than enthusiasm.

9. See Note 6 for another ‘Hadleigh Castle’ which may still await re-discovery. A further work in this category is the so-called ‘Hadlow Castle, Essex’ which was lot 62 at Foster's on 17 May 1860; it was one of six sketches described as having come from the artist's studio.

Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981


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