John Constable

Netley Abbey by Moonlight


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John Constable 1776–1837
Watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 146 × 200 mm
Purchased 1969

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Constable and his wife visited Netley Abbey, Hampshire on their honeymoon in 1816. One of the drawings made on that occasion was the basis for this much later watercolour. In character it resembles the designs Constable painted in 1833 to illustrate an edition of Gray's 'Elegy'. He may even have considered using this Netley composition for that work: the figure at the left contemplating a tombstone (a detail not in the original pencil drawing) is a stock motif in all illustrations of the 'Elegy'. At the same time this melancholy image, based on a honeymoon drawing, would have carried a personal meaning for Constable in his widowhood.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T01147 Netley Abbey by Moonlight Circa 1833

Watercolour with traces of pencil, 5 1/2×7 5/8 (14.6×19.8).

Prov: Charles Golding Constable (deceased), sold Christie's, in pursuance of a High Court order, 11 July 1887(62, ‘Netley Abbey by Moonlight’, watercolour),1 bt. Clifford Constable, £21. 10s. 6d.; ...; Anon., sold Christie's 23 October 1953(34), bt. Burnley; R.B.Beckett by 1956, when lent by him to the Manchester exhibition; bought from him by the Tate Gallery with funds from the Gytha Trust 1969. Accession No.T01147.
Exh: International Exhibition, 1862(924); lent with other works to the South Kensington Museum (now the V.&A.) by C.G. Constable's widow 1880–832 and to the Museum of Science and Art, Edinburgh 1880–87;3 Manchester 1956(129); Water-Colours by British Landscape Painters, Norwich Castle Museum 1956(15); Tate Gallery 1971(73).
Lit: Anon., ‘Moonlight at Netley Abbey’ in ‘The Connoisseur's Diary’, The Connoisseur, CXXXIII, 1954, p.119; Beckett 1961, Drawings: Hants (3a) No.10.

Constable and his wife visited Netley Abbey, Hampshire on their way to spend part of their honeymoon with the Fishers at Osmington in 1816. Four drawings of the abbey ruins made on that occasion are in the V.&A. (R.147–50, the first dated 11 October 1816) and another is still with the Constable family (repr. Freda Constable, John Constable, Lavenham 1975, p.68). No.40 is based on one of the V.&A. drawings, R.148 (Fig.1),4 and probably dates from 1833: it is very similar in character to some of the watercolour designs Constable made that year to illustrate Martin's edition of Gray's Elegy, first published in 1834.3 It has been suggested that Constable may have considered using the Netley Abbey composition for one of his Gray illustrations.6 The figure contemplating a tombstone at the left of No.40 (a detail not in the original pencil drawing) is a stock motif in all illustrations of the Elegy and its presence here supports the suggestion. At the same time, No.40 may well have had a more personal meaning for Constable in his widowhood, transforming as it does a honeymoon drawing into an image of melancholy.

An oil version of the composition in the collection of Mr David B. Goodstein (Fig.2, H.560)7 may be the painting of the abbey which was shown as No.9 in Leggatt's 1899 exhibition. Constable also made an etching from the 1816 drawing (Fig.3).8 John Fisher copied several of Constable's Netley drawings, including the one upon which No.40 is based (the copy is in the Fisher sketchbook exhibited as TG 1976 Supplement No.346a).

1. The note entitled ‘Moonlight at Netley Abbey’ cited under Lit. mentions that the 1887 sale stencil was still on the frame when the work reappeared at Christie's in 1953.

2. No.92 in the list of Mrs Constable's loans published in Loans to the South Kensington Museum 1877–1891, p.32.

3. Listed in the Loan Register of what is now The Royal Scottish Museum: Loan 86, ‘Plain No.’ 92.

4. ‘Netley Abbey: the exterior seen amid trees’, pencil 4 7/8×7 1/8 (11.5×18.1).

5. The watercolours are in the V.&A. (R.354, dated July 1833, and R.355) and the B.M. (L.B.35a-b). Another was in the collection of R.B. Beckett. See TG 1976 Nos.298–302 and Fleming-Williams 1976, pp.106–7 for details of these and of the project as a whole.

6. The suggestion seems first to have been made in ‘Moonlight at Netley Abbey’ (see Lit.).

7. Oil on canvas, 11 3/8×15 1/8 (29.2×39.4).

8. Size of plate, 5 3/8×7 7/8 (13.3×19). Fig.3 is taken from an impression in the British Museum (1932-1-27-1). An impression acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1949 is inscribed with the date 1826.

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

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