Constable first visited Salisbury in 1811, where he met the Bishops nephew, John Fisher, who became a close friend and his most important correspondent. In 1829 he visited Salisbury for the last time and made some drawings from which he worked up his oil sketches, small and large, in his London studio. His health at this stage was beginning to decline.
The full-scale sketch was considered a doubtful attribution until the 1950s when conservation work removed later over-painting by another hand and, more recently, Constables working methods have been better understood.
In the finished work Constable used a more subdued handling of paint than in the full-scale sketch to describe the forms in greater detail; the wagon, horses and cathedral emerging in clearer focus. The sky is painted with an agitated brushwork and Constable added a great symbolic rainbow which arches over to the location of Fishers house, Leadenhall, nearby.
The painting has been seen as a commentary to some extent on Constable and his friend Fishers concerns about recent threats to the Anglican church. This seems quite possible while allowing the more personal meaning Constable gave to the work when, once again, he quoted lines from James Thomsons poem The Seasons 1727. These refer to lifes travails being assuaged by religious faith:
As from the face of heaven the scatterd clouds
Tumultuous rove, thinterminable sky
Sublimer swells, and oer the world expands
A purer azure.
Works on display
John Constable, Sketch for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows c.1829
Oil on canvas
This oil sketch develops the ideas of the pencil sketch shown nearby . Together with the pencil drawing and the full-size sketch (below), it is the subject of an interactive display in the last room of the exhibition.
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (full-size sketch) c.1829–31
Oil on canvas
Courtesy the Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London
Changes to this sketch by another hand after Constables death left it open to doubt as to whether the work was authentic. The spire had been painted over with sky leaving just the main body of the cathedral resembling a castle. The removal of the overpaint in 1951 began the process of recuperation of the sketch into Constables accepted oeuvre. An interactive display in the final room explains its role in the evolution of the finished painting.
Among the changes from the sketch above are the moving of the dog to the left, the omission of the accompanying man and the increase in mass of the trees on the left. The wagon is also made more dominant.
John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831
Oil on canvas
The canvas for this finished work is six inches taller than that used for the full-size sketch (above). This allowed Constable to show more of the river bank at the bottom. With its huge rainbow over the cathedral the painting has been the subject of much speculation about its meanings for the loyal Anglican Constable.
His response to Jacob van Ruisdaels The Jewish Cemetery of c.1654-5, which he knew well, gives some idea of how he understood the complexities of such an image: he attempted to tell that which is outside the reach of art.
David Lucas after John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows: The Rainbow c.1835
Mezzotint engraving, touched with pencil, chalk and grey wash
As well as making small prints after Constables work for English Landscape, the engraver David Lucas produced some larger mezzotint plates of Constables great exhibition landscapes. This, the largest of all these plates, was started at the end of 1834. However, progress was slow as Constable liked to check proof impressions showing different stages of the print as it evolved. He was especially anxious about the representation of the rainbow, telling Lucas that if it is not tender – and elegant – evanescent and lovely …we are both ruined. He was still checking proof impressions of the Salisbury plate two days before he died on 31 March 1837.