Constable: The Great Landscapes: Room 7

Constable took thirteen years to complete this, for him, unusual subject for exhibition at the Academy, hoping to emulate the great Venetian and Thames views of Canaletto. It shows the processional opening of the new Waterloo Bridge in 1817, with the Prince Regent accompanied by soldiers, sailors and the Lord Mayor embarking on a royal barge from Whitehall Stairs to the left of the painting.

Constable experimented a great deal with his viewpoint in 1819 and 1820, before putting the painting to one side, on the advice of the painter Joseph Farington, to paint The Hay Wain exhibited in 1821. By 1824 he seems to have begun another version and in November 1825 complained to John Fisher that, ‘my Waterloo…like a blister begins to stick closer & closer & to disturb my nights.’

In 1826 he seems to have started again on the composition, this time choosing a higher view from the terrace of Pembroke House, but once again stopped painting returning to it again only in 1829. The evolution of the image was so complex that scholars are still uncertain about the relationship between the various sketches in oil and pencil and the exhibited work.

On the ‘varnishing days’ allowed to Academicians to retouch their paintings before the opening of an exhibition, Turner responded to the high colour key of Constable’s large canvas by adding an intense red to one of his own paintings nearby.

Works on display

John Constable, Sketch for ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ c.1819

Oil on millboard
Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This oil sketch is one of Constable’s first attempts at a subject he worked on for thirteen years.

He had probably witnessed the opening of Waterloo Bridge in June 1817. Three pencil drawings in a sketchbook thought to have been made in the summer of that year are of the bridge or its immediate vicinity.

This sketch was made from a lower viewpoint than previous examples and includes the royal barge on the Whitehall Stairs to the left with the Prince Regent and his entourage lining the quay. A puff of smoke on the bridge indicates the firing of a salute.

Among changes from Constable’s previous sketch 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, Sketch for ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ c.1819–20

Pen and brown ink over pencil on tracing paper laid on card
Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This drawing was made about the same time as the oil sketch (above). It shows Constable experimenting with a view from slightly further back. He seems to have drawn the image in pencil and then worked over it freely with pen and brown ink, somewhat in the style of Canaletto who was celebrated for such city river scenes and had also painted this stretch of the Thames.

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (first version) c.1820–5

Oil on canvas
Courtesy Anglesey Abbey, The Fairhaven Collection (The National Trust)

This version of the subject is considerably larger than the final one exhibited at the Academy in 1832. It does not include the tall, white ‘shot tower’ built in 1826 for the manufacture of lead shot which appears in Constable’s versions after that date. The viewpoint is also lower than that of the later versions and is painted on a reddish-brown primed surface typical of his work from the early 1820s. It is likely therefore that this version was begun around 1820. It remains unclear whether this work was a sketch or intended to be worked up further for exhibition and then abandoned.

John Constable, Sketch for ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ c.1829

Oil on canvas
Lent by the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This sketch uses a higher viewpoint than previously, taken from the terrace of Pembroke House. The newly-built ‘shot tower’ is now visible and the bow-fronted window on the left is brought into full view. Constable’s revived interest in the subject was probably connected to his aim of including it in the proposed series of mezzotints by David Lucas which became known as English Landscape.

John Constable, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’) 1832

Oil on canvas
© Tate

In this, the final version of the subject, the Lord Mayor’s barge is now included on the right. The ‘shot tower’ is of course an anachronism for an event which occurred nine years before its construction.

A parapet surmounted by urns appears in the foreground, acting as a repoussoir, or device for projecting the eye deep into the composition. Above the bridge Constable portrays a rare atmospheric condition which he described thus: ‘when the spectator stands with his back to the sun, the rays may be seen converging…towards…the horizon’.