This large sheet comes from a sketchbook Constable was using in the autumn of 1827 whilst staying with his siblings by the Stour at Flatford Mill.
Constable’s brief, twelve-day holiday with his brothers, Abram and Golding Constable, was unusually productive. Graham Reynolds identified twenty-seven drawings, on twenty-six sheets, from this sketch-book the majority of which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Constable travelled into Suffolk with his two small children – John Charles and Maria Louisa – leaving his ailing wife at home in Hampstead. From Constable’s correspondence it is evident that they spent much of their time outdoors, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather. This drawing is singular in Constable’s oeuvre, showing a lone sportsman shooting duck on the Stour. Drawings from the 1827 sketchbook, are notable for Constable’s unusual breadth of approach; in the present drawing, Constable composes a grand landscape in miniature carefully filled with narrative: the sportsman in his cover, the dog holding a recently shot bird and in the distance a series of duck on the Stour, all illuminated by the rising sun. Constable probably had in his mind Peter Paul Rubens’s landscape of Het Steen in the Early Morning now in the National Gallery, which belonged to his great friend and patron, Sir George Beaumont.
Constable’s return to Flatford in 1827 was an opportunity, as he explained to his wife, to introduce the fourth generation of Constables to their friends and neighbours in his native Suffolk. Constable’s younger brother, Abram, had taken over the family Corn business following their father’s death in 1817, running it for the benefit of his siblings. Constable’s elder brother, Golding, had recently acquired a ‘little farm house…situate opposite the Windmill’ and was employed by the Countess of Dysart to manage part of her estate at Helmingham. Golding’s stewardship included presiding over shooting on the Dysart land and he was himself a noted shot. It is almost certainly Golding who is shown in this drawing.
The Constables were a wealthy, landed rural family and the trip to Flatford undoubtedly presented Constable with an opportunity to introduce his city-born children to country sports. Constable mentions that he and the children spent much time fishing on the Stour:
‘John…is crazy about fishing – he caught 6 yesterday and 10 to day, some of which we are going to have for dinner.’
At least two sheets from the 1827 sketchbook show John Charles and Maria Louisa fishing from Suffolk barges on the Stour. Constable was himself a keen fisherman and it offered him important access to landscape, access that inflected and influenced his own compositions. In a famous letter to his friend and patron John Fisher written in October 1821, Constable writes a richly descriptive passage:
‘[h]ow much I can Imagine myself with you on your fishing excursion in the new forest, what River can it be. But the sound of water escaping from Mill dams, so do Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things… as long as I paint I shall never cease to paint such Places.’
The present sheet perfectly captures Constable’s sensory pleasure of being in the landscape: the rustling reeds as the huntsman positions, the ‘slimy posts’ in the centre of the sheet which are lovingly described, the alert gun dog and the splendour of the rising sun over the Stour. It is in studies such as this that Charles Rhyne recognized that Constable was attempting more than just the optical experience the countryside provided; that the chronological development of his technique ‘was a response to his desire to convey his full experience’ of the localities he knew so intimately, ‘that he sought progressively to find equivalents in paint for not only the visual appearance, but also the touch even the sounds and smells of his native landscape, the full sensory experience of place.’
But the present drawing also demonstrates Constable’s profound interest in earlier landscape paintings. The scene must have recalled to Constable Rubens’s great landscape of Het Steen, which had been acquired by Sir George Beaumont in 1802. The general arrangement of the subject, with the hunter crouched in the undergrowth and central axis of the composition dominated by broken posts, with an open landscape stretching to the right bathed in the early morning sun, is close to Rubens’s design.
The 1827 sketchbook seems to have remained intact whilst in Constable’s studio before passing to his children Isobel Constable and Charles Golding Constable; at least one sheet is recorded in the sale of his collection at Christie’s in 1887. The 11 sheets now in the Victoria and Albert Museum were all bequeathed by Isobel Constable. Four sheets passed to Mrs Edward Fisher, now in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. The present drawing and a watercolour of Constable’s children fishing both belonged to the great late nineteenth-century collector and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray. It was subsequently owned by Edward Waldo Forbes (1873-1969) the inspirational Director of the Fogg Art Museum between 1909 and 1944.
- Other sheets from the 1827 sketchbook are watermarked: ‘J WHATMAN TURKEY MILLS 1824’. See for example: Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, cat. no.27.34, which was also in Charles Fairfax Murray’s collection.
- See Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, cat. nos. 27.12 – 27.39.
- See Constable’s letters to his wife, Maria: ed. R. Beckett, ‘John Constable’s Correspondence: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable)’, Suffolk Record Society, vol.VI, 1964, pp.438-444.
- ‘it is very interesting to see the 4th generation of our family here – and all heads are out of the doors & windows – and Minna looks so nice in her pelisse – the blew band or what it is called was a picture.’ John Constable to Maria Constable, East Bergholt 4 October 1827, ed. R. Beckett, ‘John Constable’s Correspondence: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable)’, Suffolk Record Society, vol.VI, 1964, p.439.
- Constable to Maria Constable, East Bergholt 4 October 1827, ed. R. Beckett, ‘John Constable’s Correspondence: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs Constable)’, Suffolk Record Society, vol.VI, 1964, p.439.
- Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, cat. nos.27.31 and 27.34.
- Ed. R. Beckett, ‘John Constable’s Correspondence: The Fishers’, Suffolk Record Society, vol.XII, 1968, p.77.
- Charles Rhyne, ‘Constable’s Last Major Oil Sketch: the Chicago Stoke by Nayland’, quoted in Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable and his Drawings, London, 1990, p.318.
- Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, cat.no.17.29.