John Constable

The Church Porch, East Bergholt

exhibited 1810

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Not on display

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 445 × 359 mm
frame: 640 × 555 × 70 mm
Presented by Miss Isabel Constable 1888

Display caption

This view of the church in Constable’s native village of East Bergholt was one of the first works he exhibited. The stillness of a summer’s afternoon is broken only by the voice of an old man, talking to a woman and a girl sitting on one of the tombs.

The inclusion of people from three generations acts as a reminder of the passage of time and of human mortality, whilst the church offers hope of salvation. Pensive figures in churchyards would have reminded contemporaries of Thomas Gray's famous poem, Elegy written in a Country Churchyard 1751.

Gallery label, February 2004

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Catalogue entry

N01245 The Church Porch, East Bergholt Exhibited 1810

Oil on canvas, 17 1/2×14 1/8 (44.5×35.9).

Prov: presented by Isabel Constable to the National Gallery 1888; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1951. Accession N01245.
Exh: R.A. 1810 (116, ‘A church-yard’); B.I. 1811 (185, ‘A church porch’, size of frame 25×22 inches); Manchester 1956(15); Tate Gallery 1976(99).
Engr: in mezzotint by David Lucas as ‘Porch of the Church at East Bergholt, Suffolk’, published by Lucas 1845, although the publication line reads 1843 (Shirley 1930, No.42).
Lit: Leslie 1843, pp.10, 68, 1845, pp.21, 22–3, 198, 1951, pp.20, 21, 182; Holmes 1902, pp.81, 118, 242; Shirley 1937, pp.31, 37, 40, 41; Davies 1946, pp.26–7; Chamot 1956, p.258; Kitson 1957, pp.342, 347 n. 48; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Suffolk B(5) No.11; Hoozee 1979, No.99.

This is the first oil painting by Constable that can be identified with any certainty as a work he himself exhibited. Leslie's account of ‘A church porch’ which Constable sent to the British Institution in 1811 corresponds closely with the picture: ‘The “Porch” is that of Bergholt Church, and the stillness of a summer afternoon is broken only by the voice of an old man, to whom a woman and a girl sitting on one of the tombs are listening. As in many of the finest Dutch pictures, the fewness of the parts constitutes a charm in this little work; such is its extreme simplicity of effect, that it has nothing to arrest the attention, but when once noticed, few pictures would longer detain a mind of any sensibility’. In his second edition Leslie added: ‘I have heard the word sentiment ridiculed when applied to representations of inanimate objects. But no other word can express that from which the impression of this picture results, independently of the figures’. David Lucas' engraving entitled ‘Porch of the Church at East Bergholt, Suffolk’ also corresponds with No.7 and, in an annotation to the passage from Leslie quoted above, Lucas identified the 1811 exhibit with the work he had engraved (JC:FDC, p.55). Leslie himself made the same identification in the copy of his book which he presented to Samuel Rogers (in the compiler's collection). It seems reasonable to assume that No.7 was also the work exhibited at the R.A. in 1810 as ‘A church-yard’. It was common practice to send to the B.I. a picture which had failed to sell. at the previous year's Academy, and the title of the 1810 exhibit is perfectly appropriate to No.7 (indeed, in 1830 Constable himself referred to it by this name, as will be seen later). A slight difficulty arises from the fact that Leslie mentioned the 1810 and 1811 exhibits in their respective years without making any connection between them. However, this problem applies only to the second edition of his book: the first does not mention the 1810 exhibit at all. When adding the title of the latter to his second edition, Leslie may simply have failed to notice a possible connection with the painting he had already described in the following chapter.

An old man with two girls grouped about a tombstone in East Bergholt churchyard is also the subject of a drawing Constable made around 1806 as an illustration to A Select collection of Epitaphs and monumental inscriptions, published by J. Raw of Ipswich that year (Fig. 1, Louvre RF 6110, TG 1976 No.61). 1 In Chapman's engraving of it in the book, the first words of the first two lines of ‘The Epitaph’ to Gray's Elegy are clearly visible on the tombstone. No.7 plainly also belongs to the tradition of churchyard melancholy in painting and poetry of which Gray's Elegy was the progenitor. When Leslie borrowed No.7 in 1830 for his sister Ann to copy, Constable wrote: ‘My dear Leslie, I send the “Churchyard”, which my friends in Portman Place are welcome to use for any purpose but to go into it... The motto on the dial is “Ut umbra sic vita”’ (Leslie 1843, p.68, 1951, p.182). Constable later supplied illustrations for Martin's edition of the Elegy (see under No.40 below and TG 1976 Nos 298–302).

The porch of East Bergholt church is seen from a similar but not identical angle in several studies in the V.&A. (R. 67, 70, 99 and p.82 of R.132), in a watercolour in the National Gallery of Canada, and in other works. None of these, however, is directly related to No.7. According to Holmes, a watercolour more closely connected with this painting was in Sir J.C.Robinson's sale at Christie's, 21 April 1902 (186, 8×5 3/4 inches). Many other drawings and paintings of the church, from different angles, are known. Mr David G. Taylor has noticed that the red cloak and black tricorne worn by the left-hand figure in No.7 occur also in the otherwise unrelated painting ‘Edge of a Wood’ in the Art Gallery of Ontario (H.273).2

1. Pencil and watercolour, 4 7/16×3 1/8 (11.2×7.9).

2. David G. Taylor, ‘New light on an early painting by John Constable’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXII, 1980, p.568.

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

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