Illustrated companion

This is one of the great set-piece paintings from the later part of Constable's career, glittering and flickering with extraordinary effects of light and colour. So much so indeed, that Turner, the great colourist, was taken aback when he found it hanging next to his own sea-piece 'Helvoetsluys' just before the 1832 Royal Academy exhibition opened to the public and was forced to add an element of red to his picture, in the form of a buoy, to redress the balance.

Waterloo Bridge (demolished in the 1930s and replaced by the present one) was opened by the Prince Regent on 18 June 1817, the second anniverary of the Battle of Waterloo. The occasion was one of great festivity, with crowds thronging the river and neighbouring streets. Constable's painting shows the Prince embarking at Whitehall Stairs for the short river journey to the new bridge. The splendid Lord Mayor's barge is prominent on the right. Beyond the left-hand end of the bridge can be seen Somerset House, then the home of the Royal Academy, and in the centre, St Paul's. Constable was in London on that day and presumably witnessed the ceremonies, but does not appear to have thought of making a picture of them until two years later. However, he then seems to have become almost obsessed with the subject and produced a whole group of versions of it over the years up to the appearance of this one at the 1832 Royal Academy exhibition. Oddly, one of these versions is even larger than the final exhibited picture. Constable's recorded comments on the subject are extremely non-committal and the true significance of it to him remains a mystery.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.50