John Constable may have added the rainbow in his six-footer masterpiece Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 after it was first exhibited, to mark the death of his friend Archdeacon John Fisher in 1832. New material supporting this theory has been published online today in Tate’s In Focus series in one of a group of scholarly texts about the artist’s celebrated painting. The research has been generated through Tate Research and in association with Aspire: National Network for Constable Studies, part of the British Art Network.

Constable’s knowledge of rainbow theory and the interplay between scientific accuracy and artistic license in the depiction of the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows have been put under the spotlight in an essay by Professor John E. Thornes from the University of Birmingham, ‘A Reassessment of the Solar Geometry of Constable’s Salisbury Rainbow’. Through an examination of Constable’s scientific knowledge and use of modern solar geometrical analysis, Professor Thornes shows how the rainbow corresponds to the size and shape of one that might have appeared on the afternoon of his friend John Fisher’s death – 25 August 1832 – theorising that Constable added the rainbow to mark the death of his friend.

As Tate curator Amy Concannon points out in her essay in the In Focus publication, it is possible that the original 1831 exhibited version of the painting did not feature a rainbow since none of the reviews at the time mentions this meteorological phenomenon, despite the critics’ focus on what they described as a strange, chaotic sky. Sketches for the original work show no traces of the rainbow. Art historians have previously spotted that the base of the rainbow rests on the place in the cathedral grounds where the house of Constable’s friend John Fisher stood but had not gone on to examine the rainbow’s solar geometry in relation to this finding and whether it could have appeared in the sky at the time of Fisher’s death a year after the painting was made.

Constable was well aware of the principles of rainbow formation and would have known what lighting and meteorological conditions would produce the tall rainbow seen in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. Examining the solar geometry and looking at shadows cast by other elements such as a wooden post in the foreground, Professor Thornes reveals inconsistencies in these conditions which would have produced a smaller rainbow of a height of 22 degrees rather than the tall one seen in the painting which is closer to 42 degrees. Professor Thornes shows that a rainbow of this 42-degree height seen from the Longbridge (the vantage point from which the scene was painted) could have been observed around the time of Fisher’s death in late August, hypothesising that this indicates that the rainbow was added later to commemorate his friend’s demise.

Constable’s connection with the city of Salisbury came about through his friendships with Bishop John Fisher and his nephew, Archdeacon John Fisher. Their correspondence shows that Constable and Archdeacon Fisher formed a firm bond based on their strong Anglican faith and a shared love of art. Constable made regular visits to the Fishers from 1811 to 1829 and, during this time, produced over 300 paintings and watercolours. It was Archdeacon Fisher who, in the late 1820s, first encouraged Constable to paint a large version of the cathedral following the death of the artist’s wife Maria in 1828.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was considered by Constable to be his most important work and he referred to it as ‘the great Salisbury’. Prompted by the acquisition of the painting by Tate in 2013 as part of the Aspire network, In Focus: ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ exhibited 1831, by John Constable, now published on Tate’s website, uses an initial discussion of the painting’s making, reception and subsequent interpretation as a springboard to explore specific aspects of the work. These include an essay on religion and politics that questions the commonly held belief that Constable was purely conservative by showing how his radical and conservative views interacted: an in-depth discussion of the natural elements depicted in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows that reveals the tension between the presentation of natural beauty and the complex systems of local agriculture in the region; and a personal view on the continued popularity and national significance of the building written by the Cathedral’s Dean, The Very Reverend June Osborne. The publication can be viewed at: tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/salisbury-cathedral-constable

Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 was secured for the British public though the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manton Foundation, Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and Tate Members. Aspire is a five-year partnership project between five partner institutions supported by Art Fund, and by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery fund.

The essays on Constable’s painting in the In Focus project are by: Amy Concannon, Assistant Curator, British Art, 1790–1850, Tate; Dr Brian Young, Tutor in Modern History, University of Oxford; Professor John E. Thornes, Emeritus Professor of Applied Meteorology, University of Birmingham; Professor Charles Watkins, Professor of Rural Geography, University of Nottingham; and The Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury.

The painting is currently on display at Salisbury Museum until Saturday 25 March 2017 in Constable in Context: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in Perspective and will travel to the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh where it will go on display from 8 April 2017 to March 2018.