John Constable

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows


Not on display

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 365 × 511 mm
frame: 579 × 728 × 103 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900


Salisbury was the home of Constable's patron, Bishop Fisher and his nephew - the artist's great friend and adviser - John Fisher. The magnificent cathedral at Salisbury was the stimulus for some of Constable's most moving landscapes. This oil study was executed during one of Constable's last two visits to the city in 1829, when he was planning what was to be his final and most brooding image of the cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited in 1831 (The Dowager Lady Ashton, on loan to the National Gallery, London). Constable had clearly discussed the subject of his next picture with John Fisher, who wrote to the artist, on 9 August 1829, 'I am quite sure the "Church under a cloud" is the best subject you can take. It will be an amazing advantage to go every day & look afresh at your materials drawn from nature herself' (quoted in Parris & Fleming-Williams 1991, p.361).

This work is a studio sketch, about a quarter of the size of the full-scale sketch (Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London) and final picture to which it relates. Of the various small oil studies which preceed it, this sketch is the closest in composition to the finished work. In particular, it introduces the idea of the driver and carthorses cooling themselves while traversing the river as a central feature. The study relates closely to a compositional drawing, dated November 1829 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight), which features only a single horse and cart. In the completed work, the cathedral is made more prominent and the figures of the collie dog and his master are removed from the right of the composition. The most striking and Romantic feature of the painting, the enigmatic rainbow, is also missing from the study.

Typical of Constable's oil studies, the picture is executed with tremendous freedom, yet with an eye for composition and a varied palette. The overall effect is one of a fresh, breezy day, the rainclouds clearing away into the distance, to reveal blue patches of sky. The dark mass of trees on the left guides the eye towards the spire of the cathedral, which reaches up towards the light. In the foreground the activities of the carthorses and the man with his dog are highlighted with bold touches of red and yellow, while flecks of white pigment enliven the entire surface of the canvas.

Recommended Reading:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981, pp.140-4, no.36, reproduced p. 141, in colour.
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, pp.360-368, reproduced p.362.

Frances Fowle
8 December 2000

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Display caption

On his final two visits to Salisbury in 1829, Constable planned his last and most impressive image of the place, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited in 1831. The finished painting is in a private collection but is currently on loan to the National Gallery.

This is a studio sketch, about a quarter of the size of the final picture. It was preceded by smaller oil sketches and drawings, and followed by a full-size oil sketch. It represents a crucial stage in the development of the work, with the horse-drawn waggon now moved to the centre of the composition.

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

N01814 Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows Circa 1830

Oil on canvas, 14 1/4×20 1/8 (36.5×51.1).

Canvas stamp of Matley, Long Acre, recorded before relining, 1972.

Prov: ...;t Henry Vaughan by 1862 (when lent to B.I.) and bequeathed by him to the National Gallery 1900; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1951. Accession N01814.
Exh: B.I., Ancient Masters, 1862(150); R.A., Old Masters, 1872(41) and 1886(1); Tate Gallery 1937(p.14, No.20); John Constable: The Natural Painter, Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, 1973–4(38).
Lit: Holmes 1902, p.249; Shirley 1937, pp.lxxiii, 272; Davies 1946, p.30; Chamot 1956, p.263; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Wilts(3) No.2; Hoozee 1979, No.543.

As mentioned in the entry on No.35 above, Constable paid two final visits to Salisbury in 1829. Drawings made in a large (now dismembered) sketchbook on these visits include three which, like the present oil sketch, are related to his last big Salisbury picture, ‘Salisbury cathedral, from the meadows’, exhibited at the R.A. in 1831 (Fig.1, Private Collection, tg 1976 No.282, h.544).2 The drawings in question are now in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia (Fig.2),3 the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Fig.3, Gadney No.28, tg 1976 No.266)4 and the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight (Fig.4).5

The Mellon drawing shows the cathedral from the north-west but from a greater distance than does the 1831 painting. However, it includes a wagon (and horses ?), a motif which was to play a large part in the painting. The Cambridge and Port Sunlight drawings present the view adopted in the latter, that is, the cathedral seen from Long Bridge near Fisherton Mill (the modern equivalent of the rustic bridge drawn by Constable lies just off Mill Road and forms the beginning of Town Path, which crosses the meadows to West Harnham). In the Cambridge drawing an angler is shown on the bank at the left but no wagon is included. The Port Sunlight drawing, which is squared for transfer, supplies a wagon and horse in more or less the position they occupy in the final picture, and also introduces a man about to cross the bridge followed by a dog. No.36, which also has traces of squaring-up and other pencil work under the paint, follows the Port Sunlight drawing in most respects and was probably painted from it. At the same time, No.36 takes the composition further towards its final state. Although the rainbow has still to appear, a dramatic sky is now indicated and the wagon is pulled by a team of three horses instead of the single one seen in the Port Sunlight drawing. Sketched in at the left edge, St. Thomas' church also makes its first appearance - an anomalous one since it cannot be seen from the viewpoint used for the rest of the picture.

The incident of the man and dog crossing the bridge, which is found in both the Port Sunlight drawing and No.36, may have some connection with another drawing Constable made at Salisbury in 1829, showing Archdeacon Fisher and his dogs about to cross a footbridge (Fig.5, V.&A., r.313).6 In the large ‘Salisbury Cathedral, from the Bishop's grounds’ exhibited in 1823 (V.&A., r.254, tg 1976 No.216, h.366) Constable had introduced the figures of the Bishop and his wife: he may have thought it the Archdeacon's turn this time. However, the incident was not used on the final canvas, probably because it would have distracted too much from the central episode of the wagon and horses fording the river. A dog was nevertheless retained. Constable re-introduced the one used both in ‘The Cornfield’ of 1826 and in ‘Hadleigh Castle’ of 1829. Posted on the foreground bank, he performs the same watchful role as his counterpart in Constable's earlier wagon picture, ‘The Hay-Wain’ of 1821. Other differences between No.36 and the final canvas include the substitution on the latter of a larger wagon and the introduction of a rowing boat, pulled in to the bank beyond the horses. Like the dog, this boat had also been used before - in ‘The Hay-Wain’, in fact, where it was similarly accompanied by a man with a pole or stick.

The first indication that Constable was contemplating a painting of this subject is in Fisher's letter of 9 August 1829, written in anticipation of the artist's forthcoming visit to Salisbury: ‘I am quite sure the “Church under a cloud” is the best subject you can take. It will be an amazing advantage to go every day & look afresh at your materials drawn from nature herself’ (JCC VI, p.251). It is not known when the painting exhibited in 1831 was begun, the first surviving reference to it being, apparently, in Constable's letter to Lucas of 2 February 1831: ‘I am making sad work on my canvas’ (JCC IV, p.341). What Constable calls ‘my sketch of Salisbury’ in a letter to Lucas of October 1830 (ibid., p.336) may be No.36. Alternatively the reference might be to the large sketch now in the Guildhall Art Gallery (Fig. 6, h.662), if Constable could be thought in any way responsible for this work.7

Although there is good reason to believe that Fisher's name for the composition ‘the “Church under a cloud”’ - expressed the fears he and Constable felt for the Church in the age of Reform, the tempestuous weather to which Constable subjected Salisbury Cathedral in his 1831 painting was very much part of the whole climate of his late work, as has already been suggested in the discussion of ‘Hadleigh Castle’ (No.33 above). The comfortable Thomsonian gloss he gave the picture when it appeared at the Academy hardly catches the dark mood of the work:

As from the face of heaven the scatter'd clouds
Tumultuous rove, th'interminable sky
Sublimer swells, and o'er the world expands
A purer azure. Through the lightened air
A higher lustre and a clearer calm
Diffusive tremble; while, as if in sign
Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy,
Set off abundant by the yellow ray,
Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv'd

(Summer, lines 1223–31, quoted in Constable's version)

On its return, unsold, from the Academy, Constable resumed work on ‘Salisbury cathedral, from the meadows’ and exhibited it, again without finding a buyer, at the British Institution in 1833, the Birmingham Society of Arts in 1834 and the Worcester Institution in 1836. He also worked with Lucas on a large mezzotint of the composition (Shirley 1930, No.39).

1. No.36 may have been included in Constable's sale at Foster's on 16 May 1838 but there is no evidence that it was. Some of the studies and pictures of Salisbury Cathedral in the sale are identifiable with other surviving works or are known to have belonged to owners other than Henry Vaughan in 1862 (the first year he is recorded as the owner of No.36). However, No.36 could have been part of one of the following lots:

10. ‘Three - The Glebe Farm; Salisbury, and one other’, bt. Williams £3. 15s.

14. ‘Two - The Corn Field; a study from nature, for the picture in the National Gallery, and Salisbury from the Meadows’, bt. Radford £9. 19s. 6d.

23. ‘Two - Salisbury Cathedral, and Coleorton Hall, the Seat of Sir George Beaumont’, bt. in by Leslie at £11. 11s.

34. ‘Three - Salisbury Cathedral, the Lock, and 1 other’, bt. Williams £3. 10s.

37. ‘Sketch of Salisbury Cathedral, from the Meadows’, bt. Williams £6. 10s.

2. Oil on canvas, 59 3/4×74 3/4 (151.8×189.9).

3. Pencil, 9 1/4×13 3/8 (23.5×34).

4. Pencil, 9 1/4×13 1/16 (23.5×33.3) on paper watermarked 1822. Inscribed on verso, not by the artist, ‘109’ and ‘Salisbury 1829’. As well as being one of the startingpoints for the 1831 painting, this drawing was the basis of Lucas' small mezzotint of Salisbury Cathedral, begun in 1831 but not published until 1838 (Shirley 1930, No.30).

5. Pencil, 9 1/4×13 1/4 (23.5×33.7). Inscribed ‘11.1829’ bottom left. The missing word at the beginning may be ‘July’: Constable is known to have been at Salisbury on 11 July, whereas the first dated drawing to survive from his second visit that year was made on 13 November (and the last on the 26th).

6. Pen and bistre ink and watercolour, 3 1/2×5 (9.2×12.7); dated 22 July 1829.

7. Oil on canvas, 53 1/2×74 (135.8×188). Parts of this painting - the right-hand middle distance, for example-seem convincing but there are far more areas where the drawing is weak and the handling very crude. A distant poplar tree at the right seems actually to have been misread as a church spire. The earliest known owner of the work is James Price of Barcombe, Devon, from whose executors it was purchased by Agnew's in 1895. At some time around the end of the century the cathedral was painted out and a castle substituted. This overpainting was removed in 1951 but x-ray photographs taken at the time, and which might help determine the status of the work, have not been located by the compiler.

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

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