Historical Portraits Picture Archive

View of East Bergholt House 

John Constable RA (1776-1837)

View of East Bergholt House, John Constable
Oil and Canvas
19th Century
19 ½ x 30 inches, 50cm x 76.2cm
James Orrock; Major C.R.C. Burton, MBE; Sothebys, London, 19th July 1978, lot.67.
C.J. Holmes, Constable, London, 1902, pp. 118 and 242, plate facing p. 48; Lord Windsor, List of Constable’s Chief Pictures, London and New York, 1903, p.211; M.S. Henderson, Constable, London, 1905, p. 22.
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 1963.
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The re-emergence of this painting, so emotively identifiable with the life and formative environment of our greatest national landscape painter, is an important addition to the artist’s oeuvre. A formally over-painted sky, now divested of later over-paint has revealed a work of atmosphere, topography and drama of the type that established Constable’s reputation as the leading portrayer of naturalistic English landscape in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The importance of East Bergholt House in the life and career of John Constable can hardly be understated; described as ‘the origin of my fame’ this quintessentially English manor house features a number of times in the the artist’s oeuvre. The parish of East Bergholt in Suffolk was a place of great affection for Constable 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’.
Constable’s father built East Bergholt House in 1774 when Flatford Mill became too small for his growing family and two years later, in the house, Constable was born. The house was sadly 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’. 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’. This enthusiastic description resonates with the scenery depicted in the present work, and it’s 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. In similarity to the present work the dense grouping of trees on the right takes up the majority of the canvas and likewise the two works reveal a very close palette of colours. 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.

The addition of the female rider in the present work 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’. 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’. 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.

The brooding and expressive sky is 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’. 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. The present work 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 [Tate Britain].

Throughout the last century the present work has suffered from numerous ill-conceived campaigns of restoration, leaving areas of the sky concealed with over-paint. A far reach from the brilliant impressionistic brush strokes of Constable, the work was left with rather dull, isolated patches of clouds which someone had taken the liberty to brighten up with the addition of a warm sun directly above the house.

Graham Reynolds has confirmed the attribution to Constable after inspecting the painting first hand.
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