John Constable

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’)

exhibited 1832

Not on display

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1308 × 2180 mm
frame: 1635 × 2480 × 178 mm
Purchased with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Clore Foundation, the Art Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and others 1987


Over seven feet in length, this is the largest of Constable’s exhibition canvases and the result of thirteen years of planning. It commemorates the opening of Waterloo Bridge - and the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo - on 18 June 1817, an occasion celebrated with tremendous pomp and ceremony which Constable attempted to recapture in a whole series of drawings and oil sketches, dating from 1819 onwards.

Constable moved from Suffolk to London in 1817 and presumably witnessed the festivities, but it was another two years before he conceived the idea of capturing the event on canvas. The subject offered Constable, a staunch royalist, the opportunity to record for posterity a significant historical occasion. The picture shows the Prince Regent about to board the Royal barge at Whitehall stairs. The Lord Mayor’s barge is situated prominently in the right foreground, its billowing red standard leading the eye back to the pale horizontal line of the bridge and the distant dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Beyond the left-hand end of the bridge is Somerset House, the home of the Royal Academy, where the picture was exhibited in 1832.

By comparison with earlier versions of the subject, the onlooker is distanced from the main events and greater prominence is given to the river and the vast expanse of sky. The combination of dark foreground and a raised viewpoint draws the eye towards the distant bridge and the gathering clouds. Towards the centre of the bridge a puff of smoke indicates the firing of a gun salute. In the foreground is separated from the main scene by a long parapet surmounted by urns, and Constable draws the viewer’s attention to two small boys, engrossed in some activity of their own, oblivious of the day’s events.

One of Constable’s later works, the picture owes a debt to the Thames pictures of Canaletto and the great ‘historical’ landscapes of Claude Lorrain. Technically, the picture is distinguished by its animated surface and variety of handling. The thin brown underpainting is visible in places; elsewhere Constable has used the palette knife to build up a thick impasto. The vigorous application of paint is particularly obvious in the foreground of the picture, where bold touches of red, green and white bring the picture to life. On witnessing the brilliant colour of Constable’s painting, hanging beside his cool-toned seapiece, Helvoetsluys (private collection, London), at the Royal Academy exhibition, Turner is said to have added a bright red buoy to his own work, in order to redress the balance.

Further reading
Malcolm Cormack, Constable, Oxford 1986, pp.213-16, reproduced pl.203, in colour.
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1991, pp.369-72, reproduced p.370, in colour.
Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996, pp.12-16, reproduced p.12.

Frances Fowle
November 2000

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Display caption

Constable first started to plan a large canvas about the opening of Waterloo Bridge around 1819, but over the years his ideas about how to treat it changed. Originally he intended to focus on the royal embarkation at the foot of Whitehall Stairs. However, in the finished picture, shown here, this recedes into the middle distance, and the sky and river both assume greater importance.

This was the largest of Constable’s exhibition canvases. It owes a debt to the Thames subjects of Canaletto and the great ‘historical’ landscapes painted by the seventeenth-century French artist Claude Lorraine.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04904 The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’) exh.1832

Oil on canvas 1308 × 2180 (51 1/2 × 85 7/8) relined on canvas 1338 × 2220 (52 11/16 × 87 7/16)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Clore Foundation, the National Art-Collections Fund, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and many others 1987
Prov: Artist's administrators, sold Foster 16 May 1838 (74) £63 bt Moseley; ...; Charles Birch, Birmingham by 1839, sold Christie's 7 July 1853 (42) £252 bt in, sold Foster 27 Feb. 1857 (LXVI) £609 bt Henry Wallis; sold by him, Foster 3 Feb. 1858 (104) £582. 15s. bt in, sold Foster 6 Feb. 1861 (86) £464 bt Davenport;...; Kirkman D. Hodgson; ...; Sir Charles Tennant Bart by 1892; by descent to his grandson, 2nd Baron Glenconner; ...; Leggatt, from whom bt by Harry Ferguson 1955; by descent to anonymous vendor from whom bt through Agnew by the Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1832 (279, ‘Whitehall stairs, June 18th, 1817’); Birmingham Society of Arts 1839 (89); RA Winter 1892 (137); RA Winter 1903 (4); Burlington Fine Arts Club 1907 (20); Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, Tate Gallery, Feb.–May 1976 (286, repr.); Constable's England, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, April–Sept. 1983 (57, repr. in col.); John Constable, Isetan Museum of Art, Jan.–Feb. 1986, Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, March 1986, Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art, Kofu, April–May 1986, Sogo Museum of Art, Yokohama, May–June 1986 (66, repr. in col., with col. detail); Treasures for the Nation: Conserving our Heritage, British Museum, Oct. 1988–Feb. 1989 (31, repr.); Constable, Tate Gallery, June–Sept. 1991 (213, repr. in col.); John Constable: The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, Tate on Tour, Stoke-on-Trent Museum and Art Gallery, Oct.–Nov. 1994, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, Dec. 1994–Jan. 1995, Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery, Jan.–March 1995, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, March–May 1995
Lit: Denys Sutton, ‘Constable's “Whitehall Stairs”’, Connoisseur, vol.136, Dec. 1955, pp.248–55, repr. pp.248 (col.), 248, 250, 251 (details); R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable's Correspondence, 6 vols., Ipswich 1962–8; Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-Williams, Conal Shields, Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1976, pp.166–8 no.286, repr. p.166; The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre (vols.I–VI), Kathryn Cave (vols.VII–XVI), New Haven and London 1978–84; Robert Hoozee, L'opera completa di Constable, Milan 1979, no.545, repr.; Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London 1984, no.32.1, pl.819 (col.); Malcolm Cormack, Constable, Oxford 1986, pp.213–16, pl.203 (col.); Leslie Parris, ‘Magicking Nature into Art’, Country Life, 29 Jan. 1987, p.95, repr.; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8 , 1988, pp.55–6, repr. in col.; Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable and his Drawings, 1990, pp.166–9; Judy Crosby Ivy, Constable and the Critics 1802–1837, Woodbridge 1991, pp.24–5, 87, 93, 104, 156, 158–9, 160–4, pl.6; Leslie Parris, Constable: Pictures from the Exhibition, 1991, p.71, pls.73 (col.), 74 (col. detail); Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1991, pp.206–11, 369–72, 443, 474, 498, 508, 509, 513, repr. in col. pp.370, 372 fig.109 (detail), 509 fig.176 (detail), 513 fig.184 (detail); [Leslie Parris], Constable: The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1994, repr. in col.

The first Waterloo Bridge, designed by John Rennie, was opened by the Prince Regent amid much pageantry on 18 June 1817, the second anniversary of the battle it commemorated. The afternoon's ceremonies began with the Prince's journey by royal barge, attended by numerous other craft, from the quay of Whitehall Stairs to the southern end of the new bridge. Landing there, he was escorted by the Dukes of York and Wellington across the bridge, lined for the occasion with Waterloo veterans, before returning by barge to Whitehall. Constable's painting shows the Regent and his entourage about to embark from the quay of Whitehall Stairs, which gave access to the river from Whitehall via Whitehall Court just north of the present Horse Guards Avenue. Behind the royal party is the garden wall of Fife House, then home of the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool; the house itself is seen framed between two trees above the left end of the quay. The spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where John and Maria Constable were married in 1816, appears to the left of the larger of these two trees. The conspicuous bow-fronted house further to the left, its balconies overflowing with spectators, is 5 Whitehall Yard, while at the extreme left can be seen part of either Pembroke House or Michael Angelo Taylor's House. Further into the picture, beyond the barge basin, is Adelphi Terrace and then, behind the northern end of the bridge, Somerset House, home of the Royal Academy until 1836 (and where this painting was first exhibited). Near the centre of the bridge a puff of smoke indicates the firing of a salute. To the right of St Paul's two shot towers, used to manufacture gun and cannon shot, can be seen: one, square in section, beyond the bridge, the other - the more famous round white tower remembered by visitors to the Festival of Britain in 1951 - on its nearside. The white tower makes an anomalous appearance in Constable's depiction of the events of 18 June 1817 since it was not constructed until 1826. Prominent among the many craft on the river is the Lord Mayor's barge, the Maria Wood, in the right foreground.

Constable was in London on the day of the opening ceremonies and presumably saw something of them. A page from a sketchbook he is thought to have used that year gives a general panorama of the Thames and the new bridge but from water-level and without any of the ceremonial happenings (private collection, Reynolds 1984, no.17.7, pl.3). On its back, however, is a drawing made from higher up and including part of Fife House and the large tree in front and to the left of it. The faint figures of soldiers lined up against the wall of Grantham House, immediately adjoining Whitehall Stairs, can be made out at the bottom (ibid., no.17.6, pl.4). Another page from the same sketchbook is likewise an ‘unceremonial’ panorama but this time from the higher viewpoint (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Art, ibid., no.17.7, pl.7).

Two years later Constable started working up his ideas for a painting of the subject, telling his friend John Fisher on 17 July 1819 that he had ‘made a sketch of my scene on the Thames <embankment> - which is very promising’ (Beckett VI 1968, p.45) and then on 11 August showing Joseph Farington RA, his mentor at this time, ‘a painted sketch’ of the scene ‘as it appeared on the day of the opening the Bridge’, which Farington thought was too much a bird's eye view (Farington XV, p.5396). Two oil sketches and a large, detailed drawing are thought to date from this period: the oils are in a private collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum (Reynolds 1984, nos.19.22–3, pls.86–7 in col.; Tate Gallery 1991, nos.102–3, col.); the drawing is also in the V. & A. (Reynolds 1984, no.19.24, pl.85; Tate Gallery 1991, no.288, repr.). The privately owned oil and the drawing (which omits the ceremonies) both give bird's eye views, from an upper floor of the bow-fronted house, 5 Whitehall Yard. The other, larger oil sketch presents the scene from lower down and from more to the right, the viewpoint probably being the garden of Michael Angelo Taylor's house. The privately owned oil sketch is likely to be the one Constable showed to Farington in 1819.

The 1817 drawings and the works of about 1819 just mentioned reveal Constable's initial uncertainty about what viewpoint to adopt and in particular how high it should be. They also show him considering two different Waterloo Bridge compositions, one with the ceremonies of 18 June 1817, the other without. The ‘unceremonial’ composition, ‘The Thames and Waterloo Bridge’, was taken up in a small oil sketch now in the collection of the Royal Academy, London, which then served as the basis for a finished painting measuring 552 × 781 mm (21 3/4 × 30 3/4 in) now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (Reynolds 1984; nos.19.26–7, pls.89–90 in col.; Tate Gallery 1991, nos.104–5, repr. in col.). For this composition Constable chose a viewpoint near water-level to depict the everyday activities of Thames boatmen, bathers and other river users. Delicately handled and smoothly finished, the Cincinnati picture belongs to a long tradition of London Thames views, stretching back to Canaletto and represented in Constable's day in the work of Joseph Farington. The painting may date from around 1820 and is possibly the ‘London and Westminster view’ that John Fisher expressed a wish to buy in a letter of 19 April that year (Beckett VI 1968, p.53). Alternatively it may be the ‘little Waterloo bridge’ that Constable said he had just finished on 17 January 1824 (ibid., p.150). Possibly both references are to the same work, seen unfinished by Fisher in 1820 and not finally completed until four years later.

The first reference to Constable working on ‘a large canvas’ of a Waterloo bridge subject comes in a letter to Fisher of 1 September 1820 (Beckett VI 1968, p.56). This canvas was presumably the ‘new begun picture; “A view on the Thames on the day of opening Waterloo Bridge”’ that he took to show Farington on 21 November 1820 and was advised by him to lay aside in favour of another Suffolk scene (Farington XVI, p.5582). Although Constable followed the advice and went ahead with ‘The Hay-Wain’, the Monthly Magazine reported the subject of his forthcoming exhibit as ‘the opening of Waterloo Bridge’ (vol.51, 1 April 1821, p.276; Ivy 1991, p.87), as did the Gazette of Fashion the following year (30 March 1822, p.149; Ivy 1991, p.93). But in May 1822 the picture was still a ‘sketch’ according to Bishop Fisher, who sat on the floor of Constable's Keppel Street house to admire it, calling it the equal of Canaletto (Beckett II 1964, p.276, VI 1968, p.94). It is not known whether this version was ever completed. When Robert Balmanno (Secretary of the Artists' Benevolent Fund) called on Constable on 28 November 1825 he saw both a ‘sketch’ and an ‘outline’ of the Waterloo, the former perhaps the work of 1820–2 just referred to, the latter a new canvas which will be discussed shortly. If Constable did at some point finish the 1820–2 work, it might be the very large (1536 × 2438 mm, 60 1/2 × 96 in) canvas at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire (Reynolds 1984, no.32.2, pl.820). Of the surviving works, this certainly represents the next stage in the development of the composition after the 1819 sketches. In it Constable introduced at the left the bow-fronted house, 5 Whitehall Yard, with its river balcony, but the viewpoint is lower than that adopted for the final painting, T 04904, and its associated half-size sketches in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, and a New York private collection (Reynolds 1984, nos.29.63–4, pls.762 in col., 765; the former, Tate Gallery 1991, no.212, col.). The composition is also less sophisticated. The absence of the white Shot Tower at the right-hand side, included in the final sketches and painting, points to a date before 1826, the year of the tower's construction.

In 1825 a new version was being prepared. The canvas had been ordered the previous year (Beckett VI 1968, p.161) but it was not until September or October 1825 that, with the help of his studio assistant John Dunthorne jnr, Constable set about ‘getting the outline on the Waterloo’ (Beckett II 1964, p.397). On 4 October Constable's old friend the Academician Thomas Stothard suggested ‘a very capital alteration’ that would increase the ‘consequence’ of the picture (ibid., p.398) though we can only guess what this might have been. On 12 December Constable and Dunthorne were still ‘on the intricate outline of the Waterloo’ (ibid., p.421). Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy, came to see the work in January 1826, saying it was ‘admirable especially to the left - not but the line of the bridge was grand’ (ibid., p.424). Then, on 7 July 1826, Constable reported to Fisher: ‘I have made several visits to the terrace at Lord Pembroke's; it was the spot of all others to which I wanted to have access. I have added two feet to my canvas’ (Beckett VI 1968, p.223). It is this letter that tells us that Constable had now discovered the higher viewpoint that he employed in the final picture and its related sketches. The change of height is most easily gauged by comparing the perspective of the side walls of the garden of the bow-fronted house in the Anglesey Abbey picture and in T04904. Since the terrace of Pembroke House was further away as well as higher than his earlier viewpoint, Constable was now able to see another building to the left of the bow-fronted house. This building, just visible in the Yale Center sketch and more clearly so in T04904, is either Pembroke House itself or the adjoining house, Michael Angelo Taylor's, which lay between the former and the bow-fronted building. Constable presumably made fresh drawings from the new viewpoint but they are not known today; he would have taken the opportunity to sketch the new Shot Tower on this occasion.

The identity of this second large canvas is no more certain than that of the first, the one begun in 1820. Constable clearly intended it to be a work he would exhibit, referring to it in October 1825 as ‘the large picture of the Waterloo, on the real canvas’ (Beckett II 1964, p.407), that is, he was not talking about a half-size sketch such as the Yale Center one. At present only two large versions are known, the Anglesey Abbey and Tate Gallery pictures. The former, as suggested above, may be the work begun in 1820. If it is not, it seems unlikely to be the second large canvas mentioned in the correspondence, since Constable apparently intended to incorporate in that the improvements suggested by his visit to Pembroke House terrace, and the Anglesey Abbey work uses the earlier, lower viewpoint adopted before his visit. It cannot be concluded with any certainty, however, that the Tate Gallery painting, the work exhibited in 1832, was the canvas that Constable and Dunthorne began in 1825. Constable said he had added two feet to this picture after his visit to Pembroke House but the Tate canvas shows no sign of such an addition or of separate additions totalling two feet. Possibly his statement expressed an intention that was never in fact carried out.

After Constable's report of his visit to the terrace at Pembroke House in 1826, work on the subject appears to have come to a standstill again. In view of the fresh impetus the visit gave him, this is surprising, but nothing more is heard until 1829. From a letter of 15 September that year to the engraver David Lucas it seems that the half-size sketch now in the Yale Center may by then have been in existence. Constable had decided to include the Waterloo subject and ‘Autumnal Sunset’ in his English Landscape series of mezzotints and asked Lucas to come that evening ‘& take the things away, lest I change again’ (Beckett IV 1966, p.322). Because the print Lucas started engraving in 1831 was clearly based on the Yale Center sketch (early proofs contain details only found in that work), it has been assumed that the latter was the painting Constable asked him to take away in 1829. This may well be the case but we cannot be absolutely certain because there exists another half-size sketch, mentioned above as being in a New York private collection. This is similar to, though less colourful than, the Yale Center one. The two could have been exchanged before Lucas started work two years later. The reason for the existence of two half-size sketches has not yet been satisfactorily explained. Since both include the Shot Tower, they presumably date from 1826 or later. If - leaving aside the problem of the added two feet - the final canvas, T 04904, was in fact the one begun in 1825, the half-size sketches would have been made as an aid to advancing it rather than as preliminary studies.

The remaining references to the ‘Waterloo’ in Constable's correspondence are refreshingly unambiguous. On 21 February 1832 he asked Lucas to return ‘all the sketches and drawings &c &c &c which relate to the Waterloo, which I am now about’ (Beckett IV 1966, p.366). The Yale Center sketch would have been among them. A week later he was ‘dashing away at the great London’ and feeling sufficiently buoyed up by it to add, ‘- and why not? I may as well produce this abortion as another’ (ibid., p.368). The lively surface of the final picture bears out Constable's description of himself at work. There is, in fact, a great variety of handling in the picture. The thin brown ‘imprimatura’ with which Constable covered his white ground is left visible in places, for example in the trees and buildings at the left. Elsewhere opaque paint has been vigorously applied with brush and knife to form a thick impasto. There is no sign of the canvas having been squared-up but underdrawing in graphite and thinned paint is visible, much of it to the naked eye, for instance in the buildings at the left. Lines were also drawn into the upper layer of paint while still wet, for example to strengthen the outline of the Shot Tower. Many areas appear to have been reworked after rubbing or scraping down already partly dried paint (comments based on technical reports made by Roy Perry and Sarah Cove; see also Cove in Constable, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1991, pp.508, 513).

Leslie called on 28 February and 2 March 1832 and suggested ‘a bit more on the right’, to which Constable apparently agreed (Beckett III 1965, p.62, IV 1966, p.368). The Lord Mayor's barge was in place at the right, in a different perspective to that used in the half-size sketches, by 8 April, when Constable's friend Mrs Pulham confessed herself ‘quite in love with the Lord Mayor's bottom’ (Beckett III 1965, p.66). A few weeks later the picture went to the Academy, where, during the ‘varnishing days’ allowed to Academicians, Turner felt put out by its high colour key and added an intense red buoy to his own otherwise cool seapiece ‘Helvoetsluys’ (C.R. Leslie, Autobiographical Recollections, ed. Tom Taylor, 1860, 1, pp.202–3). ‘Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’, as Constable titled his picture, received more abuse than praise from the critics, some of whom, reasonably enough, could not recall what happened at Whitehall Stairs fifteen years earlier. One or two confused the event depicted with the subject of works by Stanfield and George Jones shown in the same exhibition - the opening of London Bridge in 1831 by William IV. This more recent royal bridge-opening may in fact have spurred Constable to complete his own work, especially if he had heard that fellow artists were planning to depict it. (For the reviews, see Ivy 1991, pp.158–9, 160–4.)

It may seem odd that in ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ Constable chose a subject so far outside his usual field and that he persisted with it against all odds over a period of thirteen or so years. There are a number of reasons why he should have done so, however. As Cormack says (1986, p.215), Constable the patriot and royalist would have been attracted by the original event and may have thought a painting of such a historic occasion (in which the home of the Royal Academy itself, Somerset House, featured) would further his Academic career; such a painting would also show him capable of a greater variety of subjects; above all, as he now lived in London, ‘why shouldn't he translate his Suffolk river scenes into a view of the Thames, the greatest river of them all’. It has also been suggested (Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable: Landscape Watercolours & Drawings, 1976, p.68) that Constable's father-in-law, a solicitor to the Regent, may have given him the idea of courting royal patronage just as Turner had (though with no more success) in his ‘England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent's Birthday’ shown at the RA in 1819 (Tate Gallery, N 00502).

It seems likely that Constable's main impulse to paint the subject was the opportunity it offered to unite human activity and natural beauty on a grander scale than his Suffolk scenes allowed, to produce not just a metropolitan version of a Suffolk barge scene but a great ‘historical’ landscape such as Claude had painted in his seaports with their scenes of embarkation. The first reference in Constable's correspondence to the Waterloo Bridge subject comes four days after he had copied one such Claude at the British Institution (Reynolds 1984, no.19.19, pl.83; and see Fleming-Williams 1990, pp.165, 169).

During the years he worked on the composition Constable's focus changed. Comparison of the oil studies made around 1819, the Anglesey Abbey canvas, the half-size sketches and the final picture shows how he gradually shifted the scene of royal embarkation further into his composition by adding to the foreground at the left and bottom. As he did so, the sky and river and the line at which they met, the bridge itself, assumed greater importance. The tree that closes the left side of the Victoria and Albert Museum oil sketch of c.1819 ended up a quarter of the way across the final canvas. In the latter the spectator is removed further from the ceremonial happenings by the addition of a feature not shown in the half-size sketches, a parapet surmounted by urns that runs along the bottom edge. By the right-hand urn two boys lean against the parapet with their backs turned on the day's events, engrossed in some activity of their own, apparently writing or drawing.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996


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