John Constable (East Bergholt, Suffolk 1776 - London 1837)
View of East Bergholt House
oil on canvas
50 x 76.2 cm (19½ x 30 in)
Major C.R.C Burton, M.B.E.;
by whom sold, Sotheby's, London, Jun2 26 1968, lot 33;
where purchased by L. M. Nathanson;
Anonymous sale: Sotheby's, London, 19 July 1978, lot 67.
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 1963.
C.J. Holmes, Constable and his Influence on Landscape Painting, London, 1902, pp. 118 and 242, plate facing p. 48.;
Lord Windsor, List of Constable's Chief Pictures, London and New York, 1903, pp. 208, 211;
M. Sturge Henderson, Constable (Duckworth & Co., London, 1905), p. 24, illustrated plate 5;
Haldane MacFall, A History of Painting: The Modern Genius (T.C & E.C. Jack, London, 1911), p.42.
This spot saw the day spring of my Life,
Hours of Joy, and years of Happiness,
This place first tinged my boyish fancy
with a love of the art,
This place was the origin of my Fame.
- John Constable
East Bergholt House, about which John Constable's 1831 ode was written for the frontispiece illustration his English Landscape Scenery, was a significant influence on Constable and his work. The parish of East Bergholt in Suffolk was a place of great affection throughout his life, and as Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams write, ‘when, after leaving home, Constable became a less and less frequent visitor to this richly cultivated landscape, his affection for the childhood he had spent in it grew into a nostalgia that became one of the driving forces of his art’.²
Constable was born in East Bergholt House, which his father had built two years earlier when Flatford Mill became too small for his growing family. The house no longer exists as it was pulled down c.1840, roughly twenty years after the family sold it; it is, however, a familiar site to Constable’s audience as it has been memorialised in numerous paintings and drawings. The present work belongs to a small group of oil paintings that Constable executed between 1809 and 1811 showing similar views of the back of the estate from different proximities. Related examples can be found in the Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, the Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. These are part of a larger body of work painted between 1808 and 1817 when Constable focused his attention on recording en plein air his native landscape around East Bergholt. In a letter to a friend written while in London prior to returning home, Constable stated, ‘for the last two years I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand... I shall shortly return to East Bergholt where I shall make laborious studies from nature... and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me... there is room enough for a natural painter’.³ His compositions of the period are noted for their intimacy, diversity of brushstrokes and adventurous colouring, in contrast to his earlier paintings of the English countryside.
In his book of mezzotints, English Landscape Scenery, Constable wrote of East Bergholt, ‘the beauty of the surrounding scenery, the gentle declivities, the luxuriant meadow flats sprinkled with flocks and herds, and well cultivated uplands, the woods and rivers, the numerous scattered villages and churches, with farms and picturesque cottages, all impart to this particular spot an amenity and elegance hardly anywhere else to be found’.⁴ This enthusiastic description resonates with the scenery depicted in View of East Bergholt House, and its charming and tranquil air. The house is a point of focus and at the same time recedes into the background in harmony with the horizontality of the landscape. The imposing trees on the right of the painting make up the densest part of the composition, while a female rider mounted side-saddle on a horse, stands out against them in a red shawl. The land through which she rides is part of more than thirty acres that were inherited by Golding Constable from his uncle Abram. The immediacy, sensitivity and atmospheric veracity with which Constable treats his subject make evident his fondness for the place.
The years in which Constable focused his studies on the back view of East Bergholt House corresponded with his meeting and falling in love with Maria Bicknell, whose grandfather was the rector of the parish. The fields around East Bergholt that are portrayed in the present work were no doubt given added significance to Constable’s life as they were the location of his courtship, as well as his childhood games.
Of the comparable views of East Bergholt House in public collections, Constable’s painting of the subject, dated c.1809, in the Tate Gallery is most related. The dense grouping of trees on the right takes up the majority of the canvas, as in View of East Bergholt House, and the colour palette of the two works is very similar. The Tate version presents a more expansive view of the countryside surrounding the house. Painted from a greater distance, the house and stables are diminished in importance within the landscape, while the hedge cutting across the fields diagonally forms the focal point of the composition.
Golding Constable’s House, East Bergholt, painted c.1811, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, gives a less impressionistic view of the house from a much closer vantage point than either the present composition or the version in the Tate. The house is clearly the subject of the painting rather than a feature of the landscape, and it is rendered from an angle, rather than straight on, losing the symmetry of the present view. To the left, St. Mary’s Church can be seen.
The addition of the female rider wearing red in View of East Bergholt House is of note, as there are similar figures in many of Constable’s compositions, functioning as colourful accents against the landscape. James Gubbins’ House at Epsom, painted c.1809, depicting the house belonging to Constable’s uncle and aunt, is compositionally similar to the present work and also features a dab of red representing a female figure wearing a red shawl. A label on the back of the painting, written by one of the grandchildren of James and Mary Gubbins, reads, ‘I asked about the red streak in the Picture of Epsom House - Burton says it was our aunt - she happened to pop out as Constable was painting it - in a red shawl - that induced him to put a dab to represent her - I should note it in Legendary Remarks on back of Picture’.⁵ This anecdote relates to the advice give to Constable in his youth by J.T. Smith: ‘Do not... set about inventing figures for a landscape taken from nature, for you cannot remain an hour in any spot, however solitary, without the appearance of some living thing that will in all probability accord better with the scene and time of day than will any invention of your own’.⁶ These statements would suggest that the rider in the present work not only adds colour and liveliness to the composition, but may be someone associated with Constable or his family. Certainly, it seems that she is representative of a real person, and not simply a decorative element.
Hovering over the lush landscape of View of East Bergholt House, and taking up a large portion of the canvas, is a brooding and expressive sky, an element of the painting that was of great importance to Constable. ‘That landscape painter’, he wrote in 1821, ‘who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition, neglects to avail himself to one of his greatest aids’.⁷ Although at the time of writing Constable was living in Hampstead and devoting himself to series of cloud studies, his concern for conveying atmospheric effects and the light and movement of the sky is evident in his earliest oil paintings. View of East Bergholt House is a particularly fine example of his attempts to capture the properties of shifting light and weather, and is a paean not only to the place but also to the time of day. The moody tonality of the clouds is similar to those depicted in Dedham from Langham, painted c.1813, in the Tate.
Constable was the second son of Golding Constable, a prosperous miller, merchant and Suffolk-born gentleman farmer. Constable was supposed to have continued his father’s business but his artistic persuasions led him to cut short his apprenticeship. In 1799, he was granted permission to study at the Royal Academy Schools. The emphasis at the academy was on history painting, although the Academician Joseph Farington (1747-1821) and Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) supplemented the curriculum with instruction in landscape. Constable copied a variety of seventeenth-century and contemporary landscapes, and developed a life-long reverence for the works of Dutch masters, such as Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682).
Early in his career, Constable focused on watercolours and graphite studies and it was not until 1806 that he turned his attention to oils painted from nature. In that year he produced a major body of landscape studies during a tour of the Lake District, which reveal his early concentration on the shifting effects of light and weather. In 1808, Constable began his campaign of oil sketching from nature around East Bergholt, of which the present work is an example. A year later he fell in love with Maria Bicknell and his need to acquire professional status and success became more urgent in order to provide a home for her. While some of his contemporaries and younger artists were achieving fame and fortune, Constable struggled to sell his work. Maria’s family disapproved of the match, and the young couple were obliged to pursue a clandestine relationship. In the following years Constable began to attract critical notice; he was, however, unsuccessful in his attempts to be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1816, Golding Constable died, leaving his son with an assured income, which prompted him to marry Maria in October of that year. Soon afterwards, Constable moved permanently to London and searched for new subject matter, sketching in and around the city. He sold occasional landscape paintings but resorted to portraiture to supplement his income. His large painting, The White Horse (Frick Collection, New York), exhibited at the Academy, attracted critical approval, although the roughness of the brushwork was considered inappropriate in so large an exhibition piece. At the end of 1819, he was finally elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. In the same year, Maria’s tuberculosis prompted the family to settle in Hampstead, where Constable lived the rest of his life.
Constable’s major work, The Hay Wain (National Gallery, London), painted in 1824, won a gold medal at the Paris Salon, but it was not until 1829, when he was over fifty, that he was made a full member of the Royal Academy. In 1833, Constable began lecturing on landscape painting. In his first lecture to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, he said about painting, ‘I hope to show that ours is a regularly taught profession; that it is scientific as well as poetic; that imagination alone never did, and never can, produce works that are to stand by a comparison with realities’⁸. The honesty and accuracy with which Constable sought to represent nature, and the devotion he showed to portraying prosaic rural scenes, is powerfully illustrated in his studies of East Bergholt. View of East Bergholt House is, significantly, the last of four similar paintings of the house to have remained in private hands.
We are grateful to Graham Reynolds for confirming the attribution to Constable after inspecting the painting in the original.
¹ The accompanying inscription to a view of East Bergholt House included as the frontispiece of Constable’s book English Landscape Scenery, 1832.
² L. Parris, C. Shields and I. Fleming-Williams, Constable: Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, exh. cat., London, Tate, 1976, p.32.
³ Larouse, Dictionary of Painters, Book Club Associates, London, 1981, p.70.
⁴ John Constable, English Landscape Scenery: A Series of Forty Mezzotinto Engravings on Steel, by David Lucas, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1855, Folio, pp.12-13.
⁵ Constable: Paintings, Drawings and Watercolours, p.54.
⁶ Charles Robert Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Composed Chiefly of his Letters, 1843, p.4.
⁷ Joshua Charles Taylor, Nineteenth-century Theories of Art, University of California Press, 1989, p.301.
⁸ Introduction to Constable’s Lecture 1 to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, notes taken by C.R. Lewis, 26 May, 1836.