Press Release

X-ray research for Tate exhibition reveals Constable's working practice

Recent x-radiography undertaken by Tate of the full-scale sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham, painted by Constable in 1821–2, has revealed a number of significant compositional alterations including three figures in the foreground that are not visible on the surface of the work.

The sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham has been x-rayed for the first time in preparation for Tate Britain’s exhibition, Constable: the Great Landscapes, opening on 1 June 2006. View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822, is the fourth of the six large river Stour paintings that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825. As with the other great ‘six-foot’ river Stour scenes, Constable made a preliminary full-scale compositional sketch in oils when planning the exhibition picture.

The x-ray clearly shows that Constable’s original working of the sketch included two boys fishing by the water’s edge and a little girl close to one of the wooden beams marking the edge of a boat building yard in the foreground. These figures were then painted out of the sketch by Constable and replaced by two young boys sitting on the edge of the river bank. In the finished exhibition painting, View on the Stour near Dedham, Constable altered the composition again and did not include the two boys from the sketch.

Anne Lyles, co-curator of Tate Britain’s Constable: the Great Landscapes, said:

This new research carried out by Tate has revealed that by eliminating figurative detail in the foreground of the painting, Constable wanted to create a more powerful visual and narrative focus in the centre of the composition. He was to refine the design still further in the exhibition picture, by adding a second barge to the centre of the composition together with a man strenuously poling the boat mid-stream. It’s fascinating to see from the x-ray Constable’s working practice in creating the composition.

Constable wrote to his great friend, John Fisher, about the changes he had made to the sketch and the exhibition painting. He says in the letter that he had ‘taken away the sail’, and - as the x-ray proves - he can only have been referring here to a sail which once appeared on a barge in the sketch. Constable also told Fisher that he had introduced a second barge into the exhibition picture, with a ‘principal figure’ strenuously poling the boat towards mid-stream.

Sarah Cove, conservator and founder of the Constable Research Project, said:

There has been much speculation about Constable’s sketches and whether he showed them to colleagues and friends, or kept them private. These new findings are really significant because the x-ray reveals working changes that Constable discusses in a letter to his friend John Fisher. This confirms without doubt that he was referring specifically to the sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham in his letter and we now know that he did show his sketches to friends and colleagues.

The comparison between the sketch and the exhibition painting of View on the Stour will be one of the most exciting in the exhibition. This is the only pair from Constable’s River Stour series that has not been reunited since the early 1820s. They were last together side-by-side in Constable’s studio when he was working on the finished painting.

View on the Stour marks an important turning point in the River Stour series. Its ambitious design anticipates the even more dramatic compositions of The Lock, painted in 1824 and The Leaping Horse, 1825. All six paintings in the Stour series will be shown together with their full-scale sketches for the first time in Constable: the Great Landscapes at Tate Britain.

Technical examination of the full-scale sketch was carried out by Tate’s Conservation department and Sarah Cove. Exciting new research on Constable’s working practice on this sketch and a number of other works will be shown in the last room of the exhibition.