John Constable, ‘Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’’ c.1828–9
John Constable
Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9
John Constable, ‘Chain Pier, Brighton’ 1826–7
John Constable
Chain Pier, Brighton 1826–7

In the later 1820s Constable began to paint landscape beyond the Stour Valley, starting with more ‘inland’ scenes in Suffolk, such as The Cornfield 1826, and moving on to sites such as Brighton, Salisbury and London. Only in 1835 did he return to a River Stour scene for an exhibition canvas.

His work was profoundly affected by Maria’s increasing illness from 1824, forcing moves with his large family between London, Hampstead and Brighton until her death from tuberculosis in 1828. His feeling in bereavement that a ‘void is made in my heart that can never be filled again in this world’ is perhaps evident in the full-scale sketch of Hadleigh Castle about 1828–9, with its desolate ruin, bleak stormy sky and turbulent brushwork.

In his final years Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831, his most overtly religious painting in many respects, shows a new spiritual mood, while The Opening of Waterloo Bridge 1832, a patriotic set-piece intended to emulate Canaletto and Turner, shows him still struggling to finish an exhibition painting to his own satisfaction. It was the last large work he sent to the Academy.

Chain Pier, Brighton

Constable lived in Brighton much of the time during his wife’s illness from 1824 until 1828. He witnessed its rapid growth from fishing village to seaside resort as a result of its fashionable status during the Regency, with its Royal Pavilion and Albion Hotel. The new chain pier is the ostensible subject of this panoramic view, but the painting is far more complex in its purpose. Constable seems to have seen the painting as a poignant response both to the vulgarisation of an old coastal site and to what he saw as the inadequacies of contemporary marine painting.

Constable wrote to Fisher of modern Brighton: ‘The magnificence of the sea, and its…everlasting voice, is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stage coaches – gigs – ‘flys’ &c. – and the beach is only Piccadilly …by the sea-side. Ladies dressed and undressed – Gentlemen in morning gowns & slippers on….those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women….all are mixed together in endless & indecent confusion…’ Constable preferred the huge sky and the fishing boats which he described as ‘picturesque’. The contrast of old and new, natural and ‘unnatural’ is a central aspect of the painting.

Constable seems to have found a corresponding decadence in depictions of coastal subjects. Of works by contemporary marine artists such as Augustus Wall Callcott and William Collins, he wrote to John Fisher: ‘These subjects are so little capable of that beautifull sentiment that landscape is capable of or which rather belongs to landscape, that they have done a great harm to the art…’

John Constable, Beaching a Boat, Brighton 1824

Oil on paper laid on canvas
© Tate
Courtesy the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

Constable, always concerned with the human and working aspects of landscape, was fascinated by the local fishing boats as well as by the skies and new buildings and social life at Brighton. The large figure on the left became the man in profile in white trousers and yellow cap in the central middle distance of the finished version of Chain Pier, Brighton 1826-7.

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Chain Pier, Brighton’ c.1826

Oil on paper laid on canvas

This broadly handled compositional oil sketch is based on the pencil sketch nearby, but the view is seen from a more westerly location. This pushes the wooden pump house picked out in ink in the drawing further back and to the right of the new Albion Hotel, which had opened in August 1826. Constable has also disposed various figures across the beach. Infra-red reflectography has shown that he shortened the length of the pier, a problem he had throughout with this subject.

John Constable, Chain Pier, Brighton 1826–7

Oil on canvas
© Tate
Courtesy the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, London

Unusually, Constable did not produce a fullsize sketch before making this finished version of the subject. Instead, he made do on this occasion with a half-size study now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as with a group of smaller studies and sketches shown here. He appears to have painted the exhibited canvas at his rented house in Hampstead on Downshire Hill.

The picture received mixed reviews at the Academy in 1827 and it failed to find a buyer. However, Turner was sufficiently provoked to paint a view of the Chain Pier for a carved room at Petworth soon after seeing Constable’s painting.

Constable worked on the picture later, reducing the width and repainting areas of the sky.

Hadleigh Castle

Constable first visited Hadleigh Castle on the Thames estuary in Essex in 1814 and made a small pencil sketch which was the basis for his sketches and finished painting in 1828–9. It seems likely the subject and roughly textured surface of the full-scale sketch and finished painting were in part an emotional response to the loss of his wife, ‘his departed Angel’, in November 1828.

Constable had been elected to full membership of the Academy in 1829, but had been told by the President, Thomas Lawrence, that he had been peculiarly fortunate in the face of ‘historical painters of great merit’. He was thus nervous about exhibiting Hadleigh Castle, although in the event it was well received.

Keen to give his landscapes a broader historical or literary significance, Constable quoted lines from the ‘Summer’ section of James Thomson’s famous poem The Seasons 1727 in the Academy catalogue:

The desert joys
Wildly, through all his melancholy bounds
Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep,
Seen from some pointed promontory’s top
Far to the dim horizon’s utmost verge
Restless, reflects a floating gleam.

Constable shows the medieval ruins as a new day dawns, the stormy sky’s vibrant light perhaps suggestive of fresh hope.