Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


81 View over a Valley, probably Epsom Downs c.1806

Watercolour over pencil on wove paper 9.5 x 12.4 (3 3/4 x 4 7/8)


When Constable called on Farington in the summer of 1804 and told him he was busy painting portraits of the local farming community near East Bergholt in Suffolk (see no.80), he also mentioned that he had a 'House of His own near his Fathers where He works hard and has time in the afternoons to cultivate Landscape painting' (Farington, Diary, 1 June 1804, vol.6, p.2340). Very little, however, has survived of Constable's landscape work in oils for the period c.1804-6. Indeed, during these years he seems especially to have concentrated on landscape watercolour painting and drawing, learning how to describe forms more convincingly in depth as well as how better to represent light and atmosphere in nature.

Before 1805 Constable had used watercolour only occasionally, and then rather timidly: there are a few finished watercolours which date from the turn of the century - controlled and precise works which follow the conventions of the 'tinted drawing' - and also a number of sketches made, for example, in Derbyshire in 1801 and Windsor in 1802, which, though looser in execution, are still very restricted in palette. During the years 1805 and 1806, however, Constable produced a substantial number of more colourful, painterly and expressive watercolours. These resemble the work of Thomas Girtin (see no.77) in their attention to atmospheric effects and in their presentation of stretches of broad, open countryside with a strong horizontal emphasis, though extending gradually into depth to a distant horizon (Kitson 1957, p.348).

According to C.R. Leslie, Sir George Beaumont - an early patron of Constable's - owned some thirty examples of Girtin's work in watercolour, and advised Constable to study them for their 'great breadth and truth' (Leslie 1951, p.5). Nevertheless, by 1805 Beaumont and Constable appear to have been rather out of touch (see no.82, and Parris, Shields and Fleming-Williams 1975, p.145). It seems, then, more than likely that the immediate impetus for Constable's enthusiastic adoption of watercolour in 1805 was the first, highly successful, exhibition of the Society of Painters in Watercolour held in London in April that year (Fleming-Williams 1991, p.396). Indeed, that exhibition featured a number of watercolourists, Cornelius Varley (no.84), for instance, and his brother, John, whose work was also strongly influenced by Girtin at this date.

This watercolour has until now been identified as a view near Dedham in Suffolk. However, it is now clear that it is almost certainly a detached, trimmed page from the sketchbook (now completely dismembered) which Constable used on a visit to his relations, the Gubbinses, at Epsom in August 1806; it is particularly close, for example, to another watercolour made that year (Reynolds 1996, 06.106) recently identified by Ian Fleming-Williams as from the same 'Epsom book'. In September Constable set off on a tour of the Lake District, and filled the remaining pages of this sketchbook with views in, or en route for, Cumbria (another watercolour by Constable in the Opp? collection, T08228, of almost identical dimensions to this one is a Lakeland subject presumably from the same dismembered Epsom book). Constable's tour in the Lake District, funded by his uncle, David Pike Watts (see no.80), lasted seven weeks and was extraordinarily productive. However, it was the last time he travelled anywhere with the specific purpose of gathering material for paintings. Thence- forward, he drew and painted only wherever his friendships, family ties or professional commitments happened to take him (Parris, Shields and Fleming-Williams 1976, p.64).

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.196 no.81, reproduced in colour p.197