In Focus

Landscape Management

The viewpoint taken for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 (Tate T13896) obscures the city and emphasises the rural landscape; much of the middle ground consists of trees, shrubs and grassland. This allows us to explore the way Constable painted different types of tree and consider why they were placed in the picture. It also allows us to examine the ways in which trees were managed in the early nineteenth century. Wood remained an important fuel and was of crucial importance for implements, tools and containers, the building of houses, the construction of carts and boats, and many types of manufacture. In the foreground of Constable’s painting, wood is used for protecting the bank of the river, for posts and a bridge; key elements such as the boat and cart and are also constructed from wood. In the distance, encased in stone, hidden oak timbers sustain the spire of the cathedral. The Harnham Water Meadows in the right of picture allow us to consider how such grassland was managed and how it was integrated with local agricultural production and the management of trees.

Drawing and painting trees

A minority of artists has depicted distinct tree species accurately and effectively. The most proficient early artists in this respect include Albrecht Dürer (1471–1529) and Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538), followed in the seventeenth century by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682). Historian Beryl Hartley has pointed out that the ‘portrayal of trees has received little attention considering their importance in landscape’ and that ‘landscape painters were virtually unique in studying whole trees’, with botanists, for example, focusing on the study of flowers and seeds that was essential for identification and taxonomy. In the early nineteenth century there was a move towards specialised education in ‘new skills in tree drawing’ which required ‘close study’ to ascertain ‘invariable characters and patterns of growth’.1 Artist Edward Kennion’s An Essay on Trees in the Landscape, published posthumously in 1815, noted that ‘important as trees are in the composition of landscape’ they were ‘the general stumbling-block’ for artists who almost always failed to represent them accurately.2 Horticulturalist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon argued that ‘There is no defect so common in painted or engraved landscapes, as the want of distinctive character in the representations of trees’. He thought that ‘With the exception of Constable, [Alexander] Nasmyth, [Edward or George] Robson, [Jacob] Strutt, and a few others, most artists appear to content themselves with producing variations of a few general and vague forms of masses of foliage, trunks, branches and spray’ and that ‘it seems to be enough for them to produce a tree, without attempting to represent any particular species’.3 He considered that ‘the correct touch of a tree’ could only be acquired by ‘studying the mode of foliation of that tree’.4

John Constable Fir Trees at Hampstead 1820

John Constable
Fir Trees at Hampstead 1820
Pencil on paper 
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum 

John Constable was influenced early in his career by the landscapes of Claude (c.1600–1682), especially Landscape with Hagar and the Angel 1646 (National Gallery, London), with its framing trees and carefully depicted foliage. This painting was shown to Constable by the art patron Sir George Beaumont.5 Constable also copied etchings by Ruisdael including one ‘with two trees standing in the water’ and in February 1799 had seen in London some ‘remarkably fine’ pictures by Ruisdael. He intended to learn from studying these, telling his friend the artist John Dunthorne that ‘I hope by the time the leaves are on the trees, I shall be better qualified to attack them than I was last summer’.6 Constable admired the trees drawn by Thomas Gainsborough and noted that the area around Ipswich was ‘a most delightful country for a painter; I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree’.7 Contemporaries such as his friend C.R. Leslie celebrated Constable’s love of trees: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’. Leslie also remembered him pointing out ‘in an avenue of Spanish chestnuts, the great elegance given to their trunks by the spiral direction of the lines of the bark.’8 Some of his tree drawings and sketches are remarkably accurate and lifelike. Leslie records that ‘The amiable but eccentric [William] Blake, looking through one of Constable’s sketch-books, said of a beautiful drawing of an avenue of fir trees on Hampstead Heath, “Why, this is not a drawing, but inspiration” and [Constable] replied, “I never knew it before; I meant it for drawing”.’9 This drawing is probably Fir Trees at Hampstead 1820 (fig.1), characterised by art historian Ann Bermingham as a ‘searching analysis of bark, branches and greenery’ where the shading ‘describes and differentiates textures and contours, and the highlights all suggest projecting surfaces, not hollow voids’.10 Constable’s oil painting Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree 1821 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) is a remarkably lifelike representation of the bark of an elm based on close observation.

Constable’s studies of ash trees

Constable made detailed studies of individual trees and incorporated versions of them into later paintings. According to Leslie, ‘The ash was his favourite, and all who are acquainted with his pictures cannot fail to have observed how frequently it is introduced as a near object, and how beautifully its distinguishing peculiarities are marked.’11 The dominant single ash tree with characteristic grey bark and light green foliage in Dedham Vale: Morning 1811 (private collection), for example, has three principal branches and tracing backwards appears to be based on the 1810 study An Ash Tree, which is again similar to a tree in Constable’s sketchbook used in Suffolk and Essex of 1810 which contains two sketches of ash trees.12 However, it would be difficult to identify ash trees in the sketch and study by themselves; it is only when the comparison is made with the finished painting that the similarity becomes apparent.

The characteristics of the bark and formation of branches of the dominant tree leaning to the left in Salisbury Cathedral for the Meadows are those of an ash, but the identification is not certain. Art historian Michael Rosenthal has argued that the tree is a motif based on ‘the giant elm’ that appears in The Leaping Horse 1825 (Royal Academy of Arts, London) and originates in Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’) 1816–17 (Tate N01273).13 Indeed, although Constable is well known for his ability to paint convincing trees, the identification of particular species is often difficult. A series of drawings made between 1814 and 1816 for Flatford Mill shows two trees, some of whose branches have been cut off in later drawings, with their stumps clearly depicted in the final painting. However, after the painting was exhibited in 1817 Constable wanted to improve it and art historians Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams note that he made ‘a large and very detailed drawing from nature of the two trees to the right’ using this study as a basis for repainting the tops of the trees. They consider that ‘it is doubtful if any pair of trees received more attention’ from Constable than these in the new drawing, named Trees on the Tow-Path at Flatford (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), but point out that it is odd that such a ‘painstaking and seemingly accurate drawing has not rendered the identification of the tree species an easier task’.14

However, Constable was able to depict species exceptionally well. This is shown in some remarkable studies of trees in Hampstead from around 1821. In September of that year the artist wrote to his friend John Fisher telling him that he had made studies of ‘a natural (but highly elegant) group of trees, ashes, elms & oak &c – which will be of quite as much service as if I had bought the feild [sic] and hedge row, which contains them.’ He equated capturing the scene with purchasing the land and thought that ‘perhaps one time or another’ his studies would be as good an inheritance for his children as the land would have been.15

John Constable Study of Ash Trees c.1821

John Constable 
Study of Ash Trees c.1821
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum 

The two ash trees in the left of the painting Trees at Hampstead 1821–2 are indeed very ash-like.16 Constable’s pencil drawing Study of Ash Trees c.1821 (fig.2) shows a convincing ash in the foreground with a tree behind on which a notice board is nailed.17 The form of the front tree was used by Constable a number of times: for instance, as a study tree for The Valley Farm 1835 (Tate N00327), although in this painting he added another large branch to the right of the trunk.18 The tree behind in Study of Ash Trees that bears the notice board may be the same as that depicted in a large cartoon An Ash Tree 1835 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) with which Constable illustrated the last lecture he gave, to the Literary and Scientific Institution at Hampstead in July 1836.19 In this lecture he used several tree studies to provide practical hints on drawing from nature and thought that his ‘Hampstead friends’ might recognise one tree represented, which he had once drawn when ‘she was in full health and beauty’. When ‘passing some time afterwards’ Constable noticed that ‘a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which had been written “All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law”.’ The tree seemed to suffer from the nails and was soon ‘cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board’.20 The word ‘LAW’ can be made out written on the notice on the tree in the cartoon.

The overall shape and form of the trees in Study of Ash Trees and the cartoon is similar to the large tree in the left of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, and art historian Graham Reynolds considers that the former drawing could be copied from the Salisbury painting, or ‘be derived from a common original’.21 Certainly the tree in the painting has a similar form, curving to the left and with missing branches. Overall, the tree in Salisbury Cathedral is more convincing as an ash than as an elm, although uncertainty must remain. It is also rather strangely balanced: several branches have been cut off – a large one just above the cart and a further two larger ones about half way up the trunk – and there is evidence of scars of other branches’ removal. This allowed Constable to emphasise the patterns of the bark and provide lightness in contrast to the dark and rather indistinct trees behind. Certainly the tree adds to the mysterious issues of scale and proportion that are found in the left side of this painting.

Willows and their uses

John Constable A Willow Stump 1821

John Constable 
A Willow Stump 1821
Courtauld Gallery, London
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London 

The pollard willow in the right of the painting’s composition, with its scar showing where a branch has been cut and bearing several young live shoots, can be securely identified. Such pollards were frequently drawn by artists such as Rembrandt and Ruisdael. Constable depicted many willow pollards so characteristic of the countryside around Bergholt, such as in his drawing A Willow Stump of 1821 (fig.3). Reynolds notes that this drawing was used when Constable was planning The Leaping Horse at the end of 1824. It appears on the right hand side of a compositional drawing and in the full-scale sketch for the painting, as well as in the exhibited version.22 It was later removed from The Leaping Horse, although a stump remains and it looks as if the tree has been cut down. A pollard willow, with particularly clear willow foliage, is also prominent in Gillingham Mill, Dorset 1823–7 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), and the same year he completed this painting he drew A Willow Tree in Flatford Meadows 1827 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).23 Several of the drawings and paintings he made at Salisbury include pollards, such as Cows Grazing, Salisbury 1829 (fig.4), where the wispy growth of the young shoots suggest that the trees were pollarded in the previous winter.24

John Constable Cows Grazing, Salisbury 1829

John Constable
Cows Grazing, Salisbury 1829
Pen, ink and watercolour washes on paper
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum 

Why were the willows pollarded? The lopped branches had many uses, including for making poles, fuel and fencing. They would have been particularly important on the water meadows for the making of light hurdles by weaving the thin supple branches into panels. These were of vital importance for penning sheep to control grazing. The tough yet light branches were also made into handles for hay rakes and other agricultural tools. According to Loudon, they could be split and ‘when interwoven with the smaller branches’ made into ‘racks and cradles for hay or straw given to cattle in the fields’.25 One advantage of willows and poplars is that they can very easily be propagated by pushing small branches into soil. Sometimes live willow fences were made by driving willow stakes into the earth which would then ‘take root, grow, and send out a number of lateral branches’ which could be ‘interwoven to make a permanent fence’.26 An example of this is indicated in the right foreground of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, where a live willow shoot is growing up from an older stem.

Perhaps the most important use of willows was for basket making and plantations of willow coppice were made along the banks of rivers and stream in many parts of the country.27 The dense woody growth in the centre of the painting could represent willow coppice growing on the stretch of the river between the artist’s viewpoint and the confluence of the Nadder and Avon. Such plantations were often made on small islands in rivers, and such an island is shown near this spot on a map of 1787, although it became part of the eastern bank of the Nadder by the mid-nineteenth century.28

The fashion for Lombardy poplars

One of the most distinctive trees in the painting is the distant columnar Lombardy poplar partly hidden by the old pollarded willow to the right. The former is a tree from northern Italy that Constable frequently placed in his paintings from an early period; one is the dominant tree in his view of the house where he was born, East Bergholt House c.1810 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London; fig.5), and they occur in many views of that location such as Malthouse Field, East Bergholt 1814 (private collection).29

John Constable East Bergholt House c.1810

John Constable
East Bergholt House c.1810
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum 

The Lombardy poplar had been introduced recently to England and was popular with the swelling middle class and in prosperous villages such as East Bergholt, with groups of genteel residents happy to share cuttings of this novel yet easily grown tree. It had been introduced in England as recently as 1758 ‘by the Earl of Rochford, from Turin, where he was ambassador; and he planted it at St Osyth’s, in Essex’, as Loudon describes it.30 The tree was not well enough known to be included in Alexander Cozens’s The Shape, Skeleton and Foliage of Thirty Two Species of Trees for the Use of Painting and Drawing of 1771.31 But as it is quick-growing it soon became a prominent feature of the landscape and William Gilpin, writing in 1791, noticed that ‘[w]ithin these few years the Lombardy-poplar, which graces the banks of the Po, has been much introduced in English plantations’. It liked the British soil and young trees were ‘promising’ but he had ‘never seen it in full maturity’. Gilpin picked out the peculiarity of its ‘conic form as a tree’ and compared it to the cypress, arguing that ‘both trees in many situations have a good effect’ although he was concerned that as the trees grew older they might lose their ‘spiry form’.32

The popularity of the Lombardy poplar meant that it began to attract adverse criticism. By the 1820s there were many trees over forty years old and over eighteen metres high. Writer John Thompson argued in Gardener’s Magazine in 1826 that it could produce ‘noble and striking’ effects of great variety but that no tree ‘has the misfortune to be in general so injudiciously planted’. He was happy to see them in ‘plantations and belts that are made with a view to picturesque effect’ but urged that ‘they should be introduced in a sparing but judicious manner’.33 Loudon thought that ‘the great use of the Lombardy poplar is as a tree for planting among houses, and where it is required to form a contrast with round-headed trees in ornamental plantations’ but noted that ‘like the weeping willow and birch, is a most dangerous tree in the hands of a planter who has not considerable knowledge and good taste in the composition of landscape.’34 Although widely planted for landscaping purposes, the Lombardy poplar had few practical virtues. Its wood did not burn well and the writer William Cobbett described it as a ‘well-known, great, staring, ugly thing’ which ‘is so utterly worthless, so ugly, and so filthy, that I cannot bring myself to say any thing about it.’35

John Constable Salisbury Cathedral and Leydenhall from the River Avon 1820

John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral and Leydenhall from the River Avon 1820
National Gallery, London 

John Constable Water-Meadows near Salisbury 1829

John Constable
Water-Meadows near Salisbury 1829
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
© Victoria and Albert Museum 

Constable’s Lombardy poplars are often depicted in gardens and near buildings. There are some young trees behind a wall in the middle distance in the centre-right of Hampstead Heath 1821 (Victorian and Albert Museum, London) and there is a large one in Flatford Mill 1816–17, while in Gillingham Bridge, Dorset 1823 (Tate N01244) Lombardy poplars are in a garden mixed with pine and other conifers and broadleaves.36 Salisbury Cathedral and Leydenhall from the River Avon 1820 (fig.6) features a very large Lombardy poplar in its centre-left which, due to the perspective, almost overpowers the cathedral near the great alder tree in John Fisher’s garden.37 In more open tracts of country Constable uses the columnar form of Lombardy poplars to punctuate a distant horizon, as is seen in the row of over twenty poplars in Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance c.1811 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London); in Water-Meadows near Salisbury 1829 (fig.7) there is a distant row of four poplars which contrast with the pollarded willows in the foreground. Here the distant genteel Italian poplars contrast with the cropped functional willow trees that dominate the foreground of the view over the water meadows.38

The Harnham Water Meadows

Constable specifically identifies the Harnham Meadows as the point from which his picture of the cathedral is viewed. It is quite easy today to go to the spot that Constable chose to make his sketches, just to the south of Fisherton Mill by a footbridge over the River Nadder. The view of the cathedral is from the north-west looking towards the west front. In the painting the meadows are to the right and their light, sunlit greens contrast with the storm clouds and the dark foreground riverside and bridge. Constable painted a detailed view of the meadows in the aforementioned Water-Meadows near Salisbury (fig.7). In both paintings, their apparent calm, simplicity and naturalness is deceptive, for they were part of a revolutionary and complex system of irrigated water meadows which was one of the most capital-intensive and profitable forms of agriculture in the early nineteenth century.

John Claudius Loudon summarised the purpose, importance and management of British water meadows in 1825, just four years before Constable began making sketches for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. As they were ‘an operation of culture as well as permanent improvement’ they needed to be managed carefully by tenants and encouraged by the landlord through ‘long leases, money advanced, or other advantages’.39 The key point was that water should be allowed to flow over the surface of the meadows in a controlled manner. The water must not be allowed to stagnate as this would stop the supply of oxygen to the grass and the soils. In flat areas, as in the water meadows at Harnham, bed-works needed to be constructed: ‘the soil is formed into beds, or broad ridges’. These were commonly 10 to 12 metres wide and about 45 metres long, and ‘in such situations, the great object is, when once brought on, to be able to carry off the water quickly. Hence it is necessary to throw up the land in high ridges, with drains between them.’ There was a trench along the top of the ridges, which carried water across the meadows, and trenches in the furrows, which took the water away. The part ‘which lies between the trench and the trench drain’ was known as the pane and this ‘is the part on which grass grows that is mown for hay; it is watered by the trenches and drained by the trench drains, consequently there is one on each side of every trench.’40

The construction of water meadows was based on precise surveying of levels and once built the opening and closing of hatches (sluices) had to be very carefully timed according to season and weather conditions. According to Loudon the ‘herbage of a water meadow should, by the construction and good management of the latter, enjoy the full benefits of both the elements of air and water’. The best way of guaranteeing this was ‘by keeping water passing over the surface of the land with a brisk current; not so brisk as to wash away the soil, and yet in sufficient quantity to cover and nourish the roots, but not too much to hide the shoots of the grasses.’ Such control required a complicated pattern of feeder drains as well as those designed to take water away. Because every piece of land was different, ‘each meadow’ needed ‘a different design’ and Loudon noted that the ‘expense of bed-work’ was ‘considerable’. In Wiltshire, ‘where they are anxious to have their meadows formed in the most perfect manner, with that regularity which the nice adjustment of water demands’, the laying out of meadows amounted to £40 per acre. Although the ‘formation and arrangement of surfaces for irrigation’ was in principle simple, in practice it was ‘one of the most difficult operations of agricultural improvement’.41

Despite the expense of construction and the labour-intensive management they required, by the early nineteenth century there were 15,000–20,000 acres of water meadow in Wiltshire. They were most valuable in April, when the winter stocks of hay had run out and grass had not started to grow. The management of water meadows encouraged early growth of grass, often providing fodder at least one month earlier than otherwise. As landscape historian Hadrian Cook has indicated, this is because the running water is warmer than the ground surface, and by warming ‘the soil above 5.5°C during the winter and early spring, grass growth is triggered and the ground protected from frost.’ Growth was further enhanced by the ‘movement of dissolved atmospheric oxygen over and into the soil’.42 This growth meant that farmers were able to breed lambs early and flocks of sheep were moved to the water meadows by mid-March. Loudon explains that due to the richness of the quickly grown grass, great care had to be taken to ensure ‘the ewes and lambs’ did not go into the meadows ‘with empty bellies, nor before the morning dew is gone’. Feeding times were strictly controlled and were generally ‘from ten or eleven in the morning till four or five in the evening’, when the sheep were driven to be folded overnight in the higher arable fields. Their manure was used to fertilise the chalky arable soil – a form of management known as the sheep-corn system. The next day the sheep were driven back to the water meadows. Here the ‘grass is daily hurdled out in portions, according to the number of sheep, to prevent them trampling it down; but a few spaces are left between the hurdles, for the lambs to get through and feed on the rich grass.’43

Although Constable had been familiar with Suffolk meadows from childhood, he would not have known of the capital- and labour-intensive water irrigation system found in Wiltshire near Salisbury. Water meadows were not commonly found in the eastern counties of Britain and in Suffolk they were very rare. This is because the gentle gradients of valleys made it difficult to construct efficient and successful bed-works. Moreover, being away from chalk, the soils were likely to be ‘more peaty and acid than those found in the valleys of the west’ leading to ‘complaints that water-meadows in the east were badly infested with rushes’, states Loudon.44 The geography of Wiltshire was very different. Here the conjunction of chalky arable fields and flat meadows, combined with the expansion of the market for barley and wheat, encouraged the establishment of the profitable sheep-corn system. The stimulus for the importance of water meadows in Wiltshire arose from ‘particular economic circumstances: an expansion in the market, rising prices, and the development of large capitalised farmers whose owners and tenants were keen to invest in a range of improvements.’ Meadows close to Salisbury also produced hay for horses and cattle to supply butter and cheese.45

There is little documentary evidence for the planning and management of the Harnham Meadows depicted in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows before the mid-nineteenth century. Research carried out for the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, however, has unearthed a contract from 1669 mentioning ‘water meadow grounds’ at West Harnham and near Fisherton Mills. When the Earl of Pembroke became Lord of the Manor in 1743, manorial records indicate that some tenants were ‘not properly working the water meadows’ and failing to clean ditches or repair trenches.46 This clear evidence of the existence of water meadows is backed up by a map of 1787 showing that the pattern of the main drains in existence today was already established and present when Constable made his drawings in July 1829. If the painting is based on these drawings then the meadows may have been irrigated after the cut of hay in June to produce fresh grass to be grazed by sheep or cattle in September. Although grazing animals are not present in the finished painting of 1831, there are stock in the sketch for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows c.1829–31 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and sheep appear in the mezzotint made by David Lucas and approved by Constable (Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – ‘The Rainbow’ c.1835, private collection). Moreover, Constable’s painting The Village of Harnham 1820 (private collection) shows cattle grazing in the Harnham Meadows, as does his drawing Cows Grazing, Salisbury (fig.4).47 This would suggest that certainly in Constable’s time cattle grazed the meadows at Salisbury after the hay had been cut.

Analysis of the meadows and trees in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows suggests that they are not necessarily what they seem. The large tree on the left, most likely an ash, has a complicated genealogy and although Constable praised the beauty of the species, this example is battered and ragged, as if consciously picturesque.48 Ash trees certainly grew, and still grow, in the Harnham Meadows at Salisbury, but this one could be based on drawings made in Hampstead or the Stour Valley. The small willow pollard, a frequent motif for landscape painters, shows signs of decay and fresh growth; it also shows signs of active management for local agriculture. This commonplace tree partially hides the then exotic Lombardy poplar in the background, which emphasises the gentility of the gardens of the Cathedral Close. Finally, the meadows which appear so straightforward were in 1831 a complex system of land management that reinforced the prosperity of local agriculture. As well as raising questions about early nineteenth-century land management, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows helps us to understand the complex relationship between topographical art and the ‘natural vocabulary’ of the picturesque.49