John Constable



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John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 181 × 264 mm
frame: 356 × 434 × 65 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900

Display caption

This vigorous sketch shows Stoke-by-Nayland, a village in Suffolk only a few miles from where Constable grew up. Even after he moved to London in 1799, the Stour Valley countryside remained an important feature in Constable’s art. He regularly returned there to sketch from nature. The banks of the River Stour ‘made me a painter’, he later claimed. The bold handling of paint and unusual sweeping brushstrokes of this sketch shows Constable’s confidence in oil. Painted outside, he aimed to capture the natural effects of light and atmosphere.

Gallery label, May 2021

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Catalogue entry

N01819 Stoke-by-Nayland Circa 1810–11

Oil on canvas, 7 1/8×10 3/8 (18.1×26.4), originally mounted on panel but remounted on synthetic board 1957. Inscribed: three labels which were on the back are now separately preserved. The first and third are probably in Henry Vaughan's hand, while the second is in Charles Golding Constable's. 1. ‘The subject of one of the Engravings in Leslie's Life of Constable; in which it is mentioned that no picture of the subject was ever painted -’.2. ‘Stoke, by Nayland Suffolk.’.3. ‘The above is in the handwriting of Captn Constable son of John Constable R.A.: Sketch sold at Foster's - 187-’.

Prov: Charles Golding Constable, sold Foster's 5 May 1871 (39, ‘Stoke by Nayland, Suffolk’ together with ‘Hampstead Heath - Sept. 1830’), bt. George Salting £8. 8s.; ...; Henry Vaughan, by whom bequeathed to the National Gallery 1900; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1953 Accession N01819.
Exh: La peinture romantique anglaise et les préraphaélites, Petit Palais, Paris 1972(59).
Lit: Holmes 1902, pp.220, 249; Shirley 1937, pp.273, 339; Davies 1946, pp.31–2; Chamot 1956, p.260; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Suffolk A (12) No.22; Hoozee 1979, No.139.

Stoke-by-Nayland lies on the north side of the Stour valley a few miles upstream from East Bergholt and Dedham. Its church appears frequently in Constable's drawings around 1810–14. A sketchbook in the Louvre (rf 11615, page size 4 3/4×7 3/4 ins., 12×20.2 cm.), which seems to have been used in 1810–11 (see note 6 to No.8 above), contains three sheets closely related to No.11 and to another oil study of the same view in the V.&A. (Fig. 1, r.330, h.138): 1 folio 3r (Fig.2) shows the church and neighbouring buildings much as they appear in the two oils, as well as indicating the lefthand of the two trees seen in the centre of the latter; folio 2r (Fig.3) gives a slightly different view of the church but shows very clearly the two trees just mentioned; folio 2v (Fig.4) has a sketch of the woman carrying a bundle on her head, which is close to the motif as it appears in the V.&A. study (less so to the same figure in No.11). Another drawing of more or less the same view (Fig.5)2 is mounted on folio 23 of the Exeter album (for which see note 2 to No.9 above). Constable's sketch books of 1813 and 1814 contain other drawings of the church, none directly related to the two oil studies (V.& A., r.121, pp.13, 15, 17, r.132, pp.21, 23, 24, 39, 40, 41, 43). An oil study of Stoke-by-Nayland dated 15 July 1815 is recorded3 but it is not known whether it depicts the same view as the Tate and V.&A. studies. A further oil sketch which does correspond more or less with the latter is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Fig.6, h.140).4

The Tate and V.&A. oils may have been made around the time of the Louvre drawings mentioned above. An argument has, however, been advanced for dating the V.&A. example circa 1830.5

A curious feature of No.11 is the conspicuous ‘left-handedness’ of the brush-strokes in the sky and trees. Constable was right-handed and one would expect any diagonal emphasis to be in the opposite direction, from top right to bottom left, as it is, for example, in the Louvre sketchbook page reproduced in Fig.3. Less odd, though still unusual, is the black ground over which the paint is applied.

Constable chose the Stoke-by-Nayland composition for inclusion in English Landscape. Lucas began the mezzotint (Shirley 1930, No.9) in 1829 and it was published the following year. None of the surviving oil studies appears to have been the basis of the print, in the earliest state of which the church tower is seen in the centre of the composition and at an angle to the adjacent buildings, rather than at the left and parallel to them. The nave of the church is masked by trees at the right and the woman with a bundle on her head is replaced by two smaller figures. The Louvre sketchbook drawing reproduced in Fig.3 also shows the tower at the centre, though seen full-face, with the nave obscured by trees; possibly this drawing played some part in the inception of the print. In the published state Lucas' print corresponds more or less with the V.&.A. and Tate sketches, though there are numerous differences of detail: the buildings in front of the church are altered, a man at a gate appears in the foreground towards the left, a rainbow is introduced, and so on.

In the text which he composed to accompany Lucas' print, Constable wrote: ‘The solemn stillness of Nature in a Summer's Noon, when attended by thunder-clouds, is the sentiment attempted in this print; at the same time an endeavour has been made to give an additional interest to this Landscape by the introduction of the Rainbow...’. A lengthy analysis of the rainbow, in moral as well as meteorological terms, follows. Before concluding with remarks on the history of Stoke-by-Nayland church, Constable reflects more generally on the great churches which the East Anglian cloth trade had helped to finance: ‘the size of many of them, and seen as they now are standing in solitary and imposing grandeur in neglected and almost deserted spots, imparts a peculiar sentiment, and gives a solemn air to even the country itself, and they cannot fail to impress the mind of the stranger with the mingled emotions of melancholy and admiration ...’ (Shirley 1930, pp.256–7; see also tg 1976 No.278).

Constable thought of returning to the Stoke-by-Nayland subject in 1835 or 1836, but this time it was to be an early morning rather than a noon scene. ‘I am glad you encourage me with “Stoke”’, he told William Purton, ‘What say you to a summer morning? July or August, at eight or nine o'clock, after a slight shower during the night, to enhance the dews in the shadowed part of the picture, under

“Hedge row elms and hillocks green.”

Then the plough, cart, horse, gate, cows, donkey, &c. are all good paintable material for the foreground, and the size of the canvass sufficient to try one's strength, and keep one at full collar’ (JCC V, p.44, taken from Leslie 1843, p.104: Beckett suggests that Leslie misread the date of the letter as 6 February 1836 and that July 1835 is more likely). According to Leslie (loc. cit.), ‘The large picture of “Stoke” was never painted’, but the Art Institute of Chicago has a painting which matches Constable's description (Fig.7, h.564).6 The crude handling of some of the foreground figures and accessories suggests, however, that this canvas may have been left unfinished by Constable and later worked on by another hand.

1. Oil on paper, 9 3/4×13 (24.8×33).

2. Black chalk on blue paper, 9 7/8×13 1/16 (23.8×34.9).

3. Grosvenor Gallery 1889 (233), lent by Mrs Fenwick. The size is given as 10 3/16×7 3/8 inches but this may be a mistake for 7 1/2×10 11/16. Beckett (1961, Paintings: Suffolk A(14) No.25) suggests that it may have been lot 108 in Charles Golding Constable's sale, Christie's 15 April 1869: ‘Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk: out-door study: summer evening’, bt. Fletcher £6. 16s. 6d.

4. Curtis Fund 1926. No.26.128. Oil on canvas, 11 7/8×14 1/2 (28.3×36.2).

5. In the V.&A. catalogue Reynolds suggests that his No.330 was used by Lucas in the preparation of his mezzotint of the subject, published in 1830. He also finds similarities between it and two other V.&A. studies connected with Lucas' engravings (r.329a and 332), which he takes to be ‘ad hoc productions for the engraver’. As noted elsewhere in the entry on No.11, the earliest state of the print shows that it was not based on r.330, while the published state also differs from it in various ways: Lucas neither worked from nor towards r.330, though he may well have used it along the way. Even if he did, however, that would not be an argument for dating r.330 to circa 1830 or to any other period. There is no evidence that Constable painted studies specifically for Lucas to engrave. The comparison which Reynolds suggests with the other two V.&A. works does not help, since neither is dated. Reynolds dates his No.329a, ‘Willy Lott's House’, circa 1830 mainly on the grounds that it seems to be a simplified copy of another study and that it was the version of the composition used by Lucas. Even if these observations are correct, they are, again, not a means of dating r.329a, except in the sense that they provide a terminus ante quem. The other work mentioned by Reynolds, his No.332, ‘Summer Morning: Dedham from Langham’, is dated by him circa 1830 simply by stylistic comparison with r.329a and 330. If stylistic comparison is the principal means of dating these works (as it seems to be), one can point to many comparable early studies but to nothing from so late a date as 1830. For further comment on this issue, see note 5 to No.12 below, the relevant entries in Beckett 1961, and Michael Rosenthal's review of Reynolds 1973 in Connoisseur, Vol.186, 1974, p.151.

6. No.22.4453. Oil on canvas, 49 1/4×66 1/2 (125.7×168.6).

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

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