John Constable

Chain Pier, Brighton


Not on display
John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1270 x 1829 mm
frame: 1613 x 2143 x 146 mm
Purchased 1950

Display caption

Constable first went to Brighton in 1824, taking his wife Maria in an attempt to restore her failing health. He visited her there frequently in the mid-1820s and made many drawings and sketches, but this is his only large painting of a Brighton subject.

The 1820s were some of the busiest years of Brighton’s development as a fashionable seaside resort. Here Constable shows the bustling life of the beach against a backdrop of Brighton’s new hotels, residential quarters and the Chain Pier itself. The pier opened in 1823, shortly before Constable’s first visit, but was destroyed by storm in 1896.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

N05957 Chain Pier, Brighton 1826–7, exhibited 1827

Oil on canvas, 50×72 (127×183).

Canvas stamp of T. Brown recorded before relining 1964.
Prov: Executors of John Constable, sold Foster and Sons 16 May 1838 (68, ‘Brighton and the Chain Pier’), bt. Tiffin £45. 3s.; said to have been acquired the same year by the Revd Thomas Sheepshanks;t by descent to Lt.-Col. A.C. Sheepshanks who sold it to Agnew's 1948; bt. from them the same year by Dr H.A.C. Gregory; his sale, Sotheby's 20 July 1949(136), bt. in by Lambert; purchased by the Tate Gallery through Agnew's 1950 with aid from the Cleve Fund and the G.L. Carr Fund. Accession N05957.
Exh: R.A. 1827 (186, ‘Chain Pier, Brighton’); B.I. 1828 (64, ‘The Beach at Brighton, the Chain Pier in the distance’, size of frame 68×99 inches); R.A. Old Masters 1888(48); Loan Collection of Works by“Old Masters”, Municipal Art Gallery, Leeds 1889(540); English Landscapes, Agnew's 1926(5); British Art, R.A. 1934(633); Masterpieces from the collections of Yorkshire and Durham, City Art Gallery, Leeds 1936(40); Tate Gallery 1937(p.20, No.43); Chicago, New York and Toronto 1946–7(34); Bicentenary Exhibition, R.A. 1968–9(74); Tate Gallery 1976(247).
Engr: in line by Frederick Smith and published 12 August 1829 as ‘View of Brighton with the Chain Pier’ by Colnaghi, London, and Folker, Brighton.
Lit: Leslie 1843, p.60, 1845, pp.176, 177, 185, 1951, pp.162, 163, 170; Holmes 1902, p.248; Whitley 1930, pp.132–3, 142–3; Shirley 1937, pp.219, 221, 224, 229–30, 233; Chamot 1956, pp.262–3; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Sussex (8–9) No.25; Reynolds 1965, pp.102–5; Hoozee 1979, No.477.

The Chain Pier, opened on 25 November 1823, is seen here from a point somewhere near the Fish Market, i.e. a little to the west of the present Palace Pier. The large building on the extreme left is the Royal Albion Hotel, opened in August 1826. Marine Parade stretches into the distance and on a hilltop further still in the distance is Rottingdean windmill. The Chain Pier was destroyed by storm in 1896.

Although Constable made many drawings and oil studies in the Brighton area, No.32 was his only ‘set-piece’ of a Brighton subject. In a letter to Fisher of August 1824 he explained his mixed feelings about the place and about its suitability as a subject for painting. Some such antithesis of the natural and the artificial as is expressed here may have been in his mind when he came to paint ‘Chain Pier’. ‘Brighton’, he wrote, 'is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautifull expression) everlasting voice, is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches - gigs - “flys” &c. -and the beach is only Piccadilly (that part of it where we dined) by the sea-side. Ladies dressed & undressed - gentlemen in morning gowns & slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers - footmen - children - nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen - preventive service men (with hangers & pistols), rotten fish & those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women, whose language both in oaths & voice resembles men - all are mixed up together in endless & indecent confusion. The genteeler part, the marine parade, is still more unnatural - with its trimmed and neat appearance & the dandy jetty or chain pier, with its long & elegant strides into the sea a full 1/4 of a mile. In short there is nothing here for a painter but the breakers - & sky - which have been lovely indeed and always varying. The fishing boats are picturesque, but not so much so as the Hastings boats ... But these subjects are so hackneyed in the Exhibition, and are in fact so little capable of that beautifull sentiment that landscape is capable of or which rather belongs to landscape, that they have done a great deal of harm to the art-they form a class of art much easier than landscape & have in consequence almost supplanted it, and have drawn off many who would have encouraged the growth of a pastoral feel in their own minds-& paid others for pursuing it. But I am not complaining - I only meant to call to your recollection that we have Calcott & Collins - but not Wilson or Gainsborough' (JCC VI, p.171).

The central portion of the composition of No.32 was derived from a drawing made at Brighton in 1825 or 1826 (Fig.1, V.&A., r.289, tg 1976 No.245).2 Another drawing now also in the V.&A., provided some of the foreground accessories (Fig.2, r.273, tg 1976 No.231),3 while the boat at the left was taken from a drawing at one time in the Heseltine Collection (Fig. 3).4 Two oil studies are also related to the picture. ‘Brighton Beach’ in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand (Fig.4, tg 1976 No.232, h.425)5 includes two motifs which reappear with variations in No.32: an upturned rowing boat with a man beside it, and women sheltering under an umbrella. The other oil study (Fig.5, Private Collection, h.426)6 shows a man (presumably a customs officer - one of the ‘preventive service men’ mentioned in Constable's letter to Fisher) watching a boat being beached. Constable originally thought of using this incident in the bottom right corner of the composition, as can be seen from a studio sketch now in the Wilstach Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Fig.6, h.476).7 In the final painting he placed the customs officer further along the beach and introduced a different boat offshore at the right. The figures bearing on a rope in the centre of the Philadelphia sketch look as though they may be involved with the beaching of the boat, but it is difficult to say what their counterparts in the final picture are up to: it seems unlikely that a line has already been passed to shore from the incoming boat. Another sketch of the composition, in the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Fig. 7, h.693),8 is of doubtful authenticity but may possibly be an original ‘beginning’ overpainted by a later hand. This sketch also shows a boat being beached in the bottom right corner, but not the same vessel that appears in the Wilstach sketch. Although a watching figure stands on the beach near the boat, the customs officer also appears further along the beach in more or less the position he occupies in the final painting. If the Johnson sketch is in any way by Constable himself, it would seem to represent a stage in the development of the composition about half-way between the Wilstach sketch and the final painting.

Various alterations were made during the painting of No.32 at Hampstead in the winter of 1826–7, and these can still be traced on the surface of the picture. The pier was originally shorter, ending at the point now occupied by the last of the towers. Having decided to lengthen it, Constable had also to paint out a sail on the boat to the right of the pier, which would otherwise have masked the new pier head (see Fig. 8). The angle of the sail on the boat seen between the third and fourth towers of the pier was also changed.

Constable wrote to Dominic Colnaghi on 6 April 1827 to tell him that he had just completed the picture and that ‘Fisher rather likes my coast, or at least beleives it to be a usefull change of subject’ (JCC IV, p.155). Mrs Fisher was informed by her husband that ‘It is most beautifully executed & in a greater state of finish and forwardness, than you can <...> ever before recollect. Turner, Calcott and Collins will not like it’ (JCC VI, p.230). But such established marine painters had in fact little to fear: the work found no buyer when exhibited at the R.A. that year. ‘My Brighton was admired - “on the walls”’, the artist told Fisher, ‘-and I had a few nibbles out of doors. I had one letter (from a man of rank) inquiring what would be its “selling” price. Is not this too bad - but that comes of the bartering at the Gallery - with the keeper &c.’ (JCC VI, p.231). Despite another airing at the B.I. in 1828 and the publication of Smith's engraving of it in 1829, ‘Chain Pier, Brighton’ remained with Constable until his death. It had not received a good press. The Times critic was enthusiastic but other writers complained about the colour and handling of the picture and one critic thought the subject inappropriate for Constable.9 Fisher, writing to Constable shortly after Maria's death, offered the sort of advice more usually associated with his uncle, the Bishop: ‘I wish if “Brighton” is not out of your possession that you would put it on an easil by your side, Claude fashion, & so mellow its ferocious beauties. Calm your own mind and your sea at the same time, & let in sunshine & serenity. It will be then the best sea-painting of the day’ (JCC VI, p.241).

Smith's print (Fig.9), the first to be published of one of Constable's major compositions, shows that the painting was later cut down on the left by about one eighth of its length, i.e. by about nine inches: originally the composition was more emphatically closed at the left by a large sail on the beached boat; a second boat and several figures have also been lost. The reduction in length was made before 1888, when the size of the picture was given as 49×72 inches (more or less its present size) in the catalogue of the R.A. winter exhibition.

Turner's paintings of the Chain Pier (Tate Gallery and Petworth House) appear to have been made a year or so after Constable exhibited No.32 (see Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of F.M.W.Turner, 1977, Nos.286 and 291).

1. The Revd T. Sheepshanks, nephew of the more famous collector John Sheepshanks, is named as the owner in 1838 in the catalogue of the 1937 Tate Gallery exhibition. This information may have been obtained from the then owner, Lt.-Col. A.C.Sheepshanks.

2. Pencil and pen, 4 3/8×16 3/4 (11.1×42.5). The paper is watermarked 1824 and is unlikely to have been used by Constable before the following year.

3. Pen, pencil and wash, 7 1/8×10 3/8 (18.1×26.4).

4. Pencil, 7×10 1/4 (17.8×26). J.P. Heseltine sale, Sotheby's 25 March 1920(117), bt. Gooden & Fox for Lord Leverhulme; Leverhulme sale, Anderson Galleries, New York 2 March 1926(81); present whereabouts unknown. Fig.3 is taken from the reproduction in the 1920 sale catalogue, which also states that the drawing came from Captain Constable's collection. If so, it was probably lot 3 in his sale at Christie's on 11 July 1887 (‘A Brighton Lugger - dated 1824’).

5. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2×11 1/2 (24.2×29.2).

6. Oil on (?) canvas, 9 1/2×11 1/2 (24.2×29.2); lot 254 in the Isabel Constable sale at Christie's on 17 June 1892 and later in the Chéramy collection.

7. No.W'96-1-5. Oil on canvas, 24×39 (61×99).

8. No.869. Oil on canvas, 13×24 (33×61). This work has a number of nonsensical features: the stern of the beached lugger is painted red, white and blue; the Albion Hotel is turned to face the spectator; the final tower of the pier has an odd relationship to the pier head; and so on. X-radiography might throw light on the status of the painting. It may be noted that the 1889 Grosvenor Gallery exhibition included a ‘Brighton Beach’ (No.279, 12 1/2×24 inches) of about the same size as the Johnson work. This was lent by Isabel Constable's heirs and is not otherwise accounted for today. The Johnson painting was acquired from the French Gallery in 1893.

9. The Times, 11 May 1827: ‘Mr. Constable's Chain-pier at Brighton is one of his best works. He is unquestionably the first landscape painter of the day, and yet we are told his pictures do not sell. He accounts for this by stating that he prefers studying nature as she presents herself to his eyes rather than as she is represented in old pictures, which latter is, it seems, the “fashionable” taste. That such a word should be heard of in matters of art!’. The Morning Post, 20 June 1827: ‘We cannot congratulate Mr.CONSTABLE on his productions of this year. The colouring of this picture is, to our eye, singularly defective; one would say that there were streaks of ink dashed across it ... Mr.CONSTABLE seems to have vigour and freedom, but we must entreat a more delicate observance of the beautiful and varied colouring of nature.’ The New Monthly Magazine, September 1827, p.379: ‘This is an attempt of Mr. Constable in a new style, and we cannot congratulate him on the change. The present picture exhibits the artist's usual freshness of colouring, and crispness and spirit of touch, but it does not exhibit them in connexion with objects to which they are so appropriate as they are to green trees, glittering rivulets, and all the sparkling details of a morning scene in the country. Mr. Constable's style is rural, and adapted to rural objects almost exclusively. We do not mean that he cannot change it, but that change he must, if he would meet with success in general subjects’.

Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981

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