Constable produced this painting at a time of great change, both in his own personal and professional life, and in the world about him. His professional life was, after many difficult years, looking more hopeful: he was finally elected a member of the Royal Academy in 1829, and in the previous year he had, through his wife, inherited £20,000: a substantial sum of money which meant that, finally, his financial worries were over. Hadleigh Castle was the first major work which Constable painted after he was finally freed from the necessity of having to paint to please potential buyers in order to survive.
However, it was also the first picture he painted after a major blow: the
death of his wife, Maria, from tuberculosis in 1828, just a few months before he
was finally accepted as a member of the Academy. Their marriage had been
particularly close, and Constable felt the loss of Maria keenly; he wrote to his
'I shall ... never feel again as I have felt – the face of the World is totally changed for me'.
It is hard, then, not to see this picture as partly an expression of personal grief. In fact, Constable did write later, in another letter, that he felt very much a 'ruin' like the castle he had painted. The few figures in the landscape - a shepherd and his black and white sheepdog to the left, and a man with three cows in the centre - only emphasise the bleakness of the scene. But it would be wrong to see it as an uncontrolled outpouring of emotion. The subject matter had appealed to Constable even when Maria was alive. He responded eagerly to the potential of the castle's situation, just a mile or so inland from the south coast of Essex, looking across the Thames Estuary to the north coast of Kent: he had written to Maria back in 1814:
'I was always delighted with the melancholy grandeur of a sea shore. 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 ...& looking many miles out to sea.'
Another important fact is that this work is not a finished painting; Constable had for some years been in the habit of producing a full-size sketch for his major exhibition pieces, before starting work on the final canvas. This is just such a sketch, for a painting he showed at the Royal Academy in 1829. The brushwork of the finished picture, which is now at the Yale Center for British Art in Newhaven, Connecticut, seems more restrained, and the overall image more hopeful. This painting seems altogether wilder, with brushwork emphasising the roughness of the weather. But in the catalogue to the Academy exhibition in which he showed the final work, Constable gave it a sub-title: 'The Mouth of the Thames - morning after a stormy night'. In other words, calm is approaching after a night of violent weather, and the ruined castle, dating back to the thirteenth century, is still standing.