John Constable

Harwich Lighthouse

?exhibited 1820

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Not on display

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 327 × 502 mm
frame: 521 × 699 × 90 mm
Presented by Miss Isabel Constable as the gift of Maria Louisa, Isabel and Lionel Bicknell Constable 1888

Display caption

Constable painted at least three versions of this composition, one of which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1820. The lighthouse, known as the Low Lighthouse, was one of two at Harwich. Both were leased at the time by Constable's friend and patron, Major-General Slater-Rebow of Wivenhoe Park.


These small-scale coastal subjects
in the Dutch manner were popular with collectors. A few years later Constable painted a composition of Yarmouth Jetty (displayed nearby) on the same format,
and even used the same sky. He also
made several versions of this composition.


Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

N01276 Harwich Lighthouse ? Exhibited 1820

Oil on canvas, 12 7/8×19 3/4 (32.7×50.2).

Prov: bequeathed by Isabel Constable to the National Gallery, as the gift of Maria Louisa, Isabel and Lionel Bicknell Constable, 1888; at the Tate Gallery 1897–1956; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1968. Accession N01276.
Exh: ?R.A. 1820 (148, ‘Harwich light-house’); R.A. Old Masters 1878(285); Leeds 1913(70); Biennale, Venice 1938(Sala 12, No.3); Exhibition of the Works of British Artists (1750–1850), Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth 1939(36); Tate Gallery 1976(179).
Lit: Holmes 1902, pp.120, 245; Shirley 1937, p.121; Chamot 1956, p.260; Davies 1959, pp.17–19; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Essex (11) No.29; Hoozee 1979, No.270.

Constable painted at least three versions of this composition, which derives from a drawing made on 22 August in 1815 or 1817 (Fig. 1, V. & A., R.142).1 The lighthouse depicted, known as the Low Lighthouse, was one of two at Harwich, both leased at this time by Constable's friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park. Rebow was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from shipping passing them. He obtained a new lease in 1817 on condition that the lighthouses were rebuilt; the rebuilding, in a different form, was completed in 1818.2 Despite his connection with the artist, Rebow seems not to have been involved in any way with Constable's lighthouse pictures.

The other surviving versions of the composition are in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art (Fig.2, TG 1976 No.178, H. 271)3 and an English private collection (Fig. 3, Manchester 1956 No.60, H.272).4 The differences between the three paintings are very slight. For example, No.18 and the privately owned version show two birds in the bottom right hand corner, the Yale picture only one. In the latter, the man in the foreground appears to face sideways rather than ahead, and, whether by design or later accident, the two small figures by the line of rocks to the right of the lighthouse are missing. There are other minor discrepancies.

There seems no way of determining which of the three pictures was the ‘Harwich light-house’ which Constable exhibited at the R.A. in 1820 and it is equally difficult to identify any of them with the two mentioned in Constable's correspondence. The first of these is referred to by Constable in a letter to Fisher of 18 August 1823: ‘I have not a sea peice-or “Windmill Coast Scene” “at all”. I gave it to Gooch for his kind attention to my children. Half an hour ago I received a letter from Woodburne to purchase it or one of my seapeices - but I am without one - they are much liked’ (JCC VI, p.128). We know that the ‘Windmill Coast Scene’ was the Harwich lighthouse subject because Fisher called Constable's 1820 exhibit ‘the sea-coast windmill’ (ibid., p.53), alluding to the windmill-like appearance of the lighthouse. Robert Gooch (1784–1830), the Constables' doctor, also owned a ‘Yarmouth Jetty’, which is usually thought to be what Constable means by a ‘sea peice’ here (see under No.26 below). There seems no reason why Gooch's ‘Harwich Lighthouse’ should not have been the one exhibited in 1820. The other version mentioned in the correspondence, however, cannot have been the exhibited work. It was painted and given to Constable's Woodbridge patron, James Pulham, in July 1824 (JCC II, pp.362–3) after Pulham had written to congratulate the artist on his success at the Paris Salon, saying that he would now have to ‘forego all pretensions of Gratification from your Pencil, - whilst you are rewarded according to your merits’ (JCC IV, p.91). Pulham was especially attached to Harwich and told Constable ‘I do not know that you ed have pleased me more, than by giving me a correct Resemblance of a Scene, that brought to my mind the remembrance of many a youthful Ramble over the very Spot you have so faithfully delineated’ (ibid.). After Pulham's death in 1830 Constable purchased the picture from his widow and in July 1831 offered to sell it to John Martin, the bibliographer, telling him that it had been painted ‘some years ago (6 or 7)’ (JCC V, p.88). There is nothing to show whether Martin took up Constable's offer. If Constable retained the work, it may have been No.18, which descended to his daughter Isabel, and in that case No.18 would not have been the 1820 exhibit since the picture offered to Martin was Pulham's version of 1824. On the other hand, a ‘Harwich Lighthouse’ in the Jesse Watts-Russell sale (Christie's, 3 July 1875, lot 26, bt. Smith) was said in the catalogue to have been ‘Obtained direct from the artist’ and this might equally have been the ex-Pulham work, supposing Martin to have rejected it. The version referred to earlier in this entry as being now in a private collection can only be traced back to 1892 and even less appears to be known of the history of the Yale Center picture.

Constable re-used the sky in the ‘Harwich Lighthouse’ paintings for his ‘Yarmouth Jetty’, which, like the Harwich composition, survives in several versions (see No.26). In 1831 he thought of including the Harwich subject in English Landscape (see JCC IV, p.446) but nothing came of the idea.

1. Pencil, 4 1/2×7 3/8 (11.5×18.7). Inscribed by the artist ‘Harwich 22d Augst 181[?5]’. Reynolds points out that the last digit in the inscription is now illegible but was read as ‘5’ when the work entered the Museum. A drawing of Harwich dated 1 September 1815 is also in the V.&A.(R.144) but this and other drawings thought to come from the same sketchbook differ in size from the lighthouse drawing, R. 142. Reynolds suggests that the latter may date from 1817, when Constable was using a sketchbook of matching size.

2. For an account of the lighthouses see The Victoria History of the County of Essex, 11, 1907, pp.293–4.

3. Oil on canvas, 13×20 (33×50.8). Prov:...;? Seymour Leslie (born 1889);? his brother, Sir (John Randolph) Shane Leslie, Bt. (1885–1971); Stanley A. Kisch; bought from Gooden & Fox by Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon 1968.

4. Oil on canvas, 13×20 (33×50.8). Prov:...; bought from Marian Murietta 1892 by the husband of the lender to the 1956 Manchester exhibition; currently on loan to Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

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

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