Investigating the paintings

In the summer of 2005, with Constable: The Great Landscapes exhibition a year away, Tate Painting Conservation brought several of the ‘six footer’ canvases in to the studio at Tate Britain for examination. These included Chain Pier (Tate), Sketch for Hadleigh Castle (Tate), Sketch for the Leaping Horse (V&A) and Sketch for View on the Stour (Private). Owing to the significance of Constable to British Art History and the popularity of his work, many of these paintings are permanently on display. Consequently the opportunity for in-depth study and close comparison between related works is rare.

The paintings were released from gallery walls and studied by conservators using microscopic, ultra violet, infra red and X-ray examination techniques. Constable’s choice of materials and aspects of his technical style: typical brushwork, thickness of impasto, density of modelling etc. were investigated and recorded. These findings have added to our existing knowledge of Constable’s working practice as well as helped curators understand the artist’s creative development during the later stages of his career.

For more details on the findings from the technical examination of Sketch for Hadleigh Castle see Natasha Duff’s article in Tate Papers, Spring 2006

Studio materials

After he died unexpectedly in 1837, the contents of Constable’s studio were divided among family and friends. These included four palettes, a wooden sketching box with brushes, chalk holder, palette knife and pigments in glass phials. There were also paint bladders, prepared canvases, easels and frames, as well as a wooden box full of bottles with colours, ‘stolen by Sinn Fein’ in 1921. Later, much of this material was sadly stolen or destroyed by fire.

One of the surviving palettes is exhibited in Room 9. It is covered with remains of colours such as vermilion, emerald green, chrome yellow, cobalt blue, lead white and madder, ground in a variety of mediums such as linseed oil mixed with pine resin. These can all be found on the surfaces of Constable’s later works, as translucent ‘glazes’ and crisp highlights.

Constable's painting palette

Constable’s palette c.1837
Reddish hardwood, traditionally cherry wood or walnut, though not identifiable by analysis
© Tate

 His metal paint box of c.1837 is divided into seventeen compartments and contains a cork-stopped glass phial with blue pigment, a lump of white gypsum probably used for a variety of purposes including drawing and roughening paper, and various bladders with the artist’s own or commercial ready-mixed paint.

Constable’s metal paint box c.1837 containing eleven paint bladders, a piece of white stone and a glass phial of blue pigment

Constable’s metal paint box c.1837
Containing eleven paint bladders, a piece of white stone and a glass phial of blue pigment
Estate of Sir Edwin A.G. Manton
© Tate

In his last years, then, we have fascinating evidence about Constable’s very personal working methods, mixing new proprietary materials with more traditional ones prepared by himself so that he could achieve very exact effects of colour and texture. He also selected the slow-drying medium of poppy oil which allowed him to rework his surfaces over extended periods of time.