John Constable Dedham Lock And Mill Descriptive Essay

N02661Dedham Lock and Mill Circa 1819


Oil on canvas, 21 1/2×30 1/8 (54.6×76.5).

Prov: Perhaps the ‘Water Mill large unfinished oil ... reflections in water’ which Isabel Constable bequeathed to her niece Ella Constable 1888;1 probably in the anon. sale [by Edgar Colquhoun2] of works ‘Exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1889, as the property of Miss Isabel Constable, deceased’, Christie's 28 May 1891 (134, ‘Dedham Mill’), bt. Wigzell £91. 7s.;3 ...; Louis Huth, sold Christie's 20 May 1905 (39; the sale stencil is on the stretcher), bt. Agnew for George Salting, by whom bequeathed to the National Gallery 1910; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919. Accession N02661.
Exh: Grosvenor Gallery 1889(263); Agnew's 1910(254); Tate Gallery 1937 (p.13, No.14); Two Hundred Years of British Painting, Public Library and Art Gallery, Huddersfield 1946(97).
Lit: Holmes 1910, p.85; Shirley 1937, pp.107, 120; R. B. Beckett, ‘Constable's “Dedham Mill”’, The Burlington Magazine, XCVII, 1955, pp.52–5; Chamot 1956, p.260; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Essex (4) No.9; Hoozee 1979, No.255.

Although Flatford Mill and its surroundings figure frequently in Constable's work, only around 1818–20 did he take much artistic notice of the other family watermill, at Dedham. Three finished version of the composition seen in an unfinished state in No.17 were produced in those years. The view depicted is from the Suffolk bank of the Stour, looking southwards to Dedham mill, lock and church. The composition was derived from an oil sketch perhaps made about 1810 and now in the V. & A. (Fig. 1, r. 113, h. 182).4 This shows little space to the left of the mill and the church is consequently more of a focal point. What seems to be the next representation, a drawing in the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino (Fig. 2),5 extends the design on the left to allow a glimpse of distant landscape and to give the mill a slightly more central place. No.17 and a finished version in a private collection (Fig.3, tg 1976 No.166, h. 256)6 follow this drawing in most respects. In these two pictures the strong horizontal accent of the middle-distance is offset by the tall trees at the right and the curving bank in the foreground. In two other versions, one dated 1820 (Fig.4, V.&A., r.184, tg 1976 No.180, h.274)7 and the other said by Leslie8 to have been painted the same year (Fig.5, Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire, h.275),9 the horizontal emphasis is further reduced by the introduction of a boat at the left, its sail cutting vertically through the composition and its bow pointing diagonally across it; two horses now appear at the right instead of the single one seen before. A much smaller version, also with a boat at the left, was sold at Sotheby's in 1953 but has not been seen by the compiler.10

A curious detail of both No.17 and the privately owned version is the straight edge given to the bottom of the roof over the mill wheel: in the original oil sketch and in the V.&A. and Currier Gallery paintings a central lip projects below the bottom edge of the roof. In the Huntington drawing this detail is not very clear but the bottom of the roof does seem to be straight. Possibly Constable could not remember whether the oil sketch or the drawing was correct on this point or, more likely, he may have suppressed the lip when stressing the horizontal lines of the composition and restored it when, in the 1820 pictures, he wanted to break up the horizontality of the design.

At the British Institution in 1819 Constable exhibited a painting entitled ‘A Mill’ (78, size of frame 39×47 inches). This can reasonably be identified as one of the ‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ pictures: the title is appropriate and two of the existing versions date from the right period. Of the three full-size finished versions, the privately owned one is most likely to have been the exhibited work. Measuring 28×35 1/2 inches, its size accords best with the frame measurements given in the B.I. catalogue (which are, incidentally, almost exactly matched by the picture's present frame). A 39×47 inch frame around either the V.&A. or the Currier Gallery picture would be eight or nine inches wide. The former is, in any case, dated 1820 and is unlikely for that reason to have been exhibited in 1819. As well as being ascribed by Leslie to the same year, 1820, the Currier Gallery painting appears to have been acquired by Miss Spedding from Constable's daughter Maria in 1841,11 whereas the 1819 picture was sold at the exhibition to a Mr J. Pinhorn12 and is highly unlikely to have been back with the Constable family in 1841. On this evidence, and because it lacks the additional compositional devices of the other two pictures, the privately owned ‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ would seem to be the earliest of the finished versions and the one shown in 1819. Since the exhibition opened in January, the work was probably largely done in 1818.

As has already been indicated, No.17 relates more closely to the picture identified here as the 1819 exhibit than to the versions of 1820. Although the picture is unfinished, it is clear that Constable has not yet decided to bring on a boat at the left - he carries the landscape, which the sail of the boat would partly obscure, right across the background at this point. It is difficult to say whether No.17 precedes or follows the 1819 picture, and no less difficult to say why it is unfinished. No.17 may be Constable's first attempt at a full-size version of the composition, perhaps abandoned when he felt that the closely observed middle-distance threatened the overall unity of the picture and that the necessary adjustments could not be made on the same canvas. Whether or not he solved the problem in the 1819 exhibit would be immaterial to this argument. Or the 1819 exhibit may be the first of the two pictures. Since it sold quickly, Constable may have decided to repeat the composition in No.17, which might have been abandoned when he subsequently decided on alterations to the design. The fact that No.17 is more or less the same size as the 1820 pictures might support the argument that it follows the exhibited work, which has a much squarer format. There is no parallel case which would throw light on this problem. For the time being, at least, the order in which the two canvases were painted and the reason for the unfinished state of No.17 remain mysteries.

1. According to a copy of Isabel's will in the collection of Mrs E. Constable.

2. Although Christie's records definitely show that Colquhoun was the anonymous vendor (and some of the works bought in at the sale are still with his descendants), it remains to be discovered how he came into possession of the forty-one lots offered on this occasion, all of them works claimed to have been exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery only two or three years previously as the property of Isabel's heirs. He does not seem to have been related to the Constable family, though he may possibly have been a friend, acting on behalf of one or more of the heirs. Colquhoun was himself a lender to the same Grosvenor Gallery exhibition, contributing paintings ascribed to Wilson and Gainsborough. It is conceivable that he purchased the Constables privately after the exhibition, but in that case why did he dispose of them so soon afterwards?

3. Five works entitled ‘Dedham Lock, on the Stour’ or ‘Dedham Mill’ were included in the 1889 exhibition. None was larger than 9 1/2×11 1/2 inches with the exception of No.263, measuring 21×30 inches and described as a sketch for what is now V.&A., r.184: this is clearly our No.17. In the 1891 sale of items from the exhibition two Dedham mill or lock subjects appeared: lot 134, which sold for £91. 7s., and lot 143, which went for £58. 16s. Other works from the 1889 exhibition were sold at Christie's on 17 June 1892 and these included a ‘Dedham Water-mill’ (lot 259), which fetched £21. Since No.17 was the largest of the Dedham pictures in the exhibition, it may have been the most expensive of the three that reached the 1891–2 sales. However, not all the works shown in 1889 went to auction and the matter is further complicated because not all Colquhoun's Constables had, in fact, been shown at the Grosvenor Gallery, so far as one can tell from a comparison of the titles and other details given in the exhibition and sale catalogues.

4. Oil on paper, 7 1/8×9 3/4 (18.1×24.8).

5. Pencil, 4 1/2×7 1/4 (11.5×18.4).

6. Oil on canvas, 28×35 1/2 (71×90.2); formerly in the collection of Thomas Pitt Miller, sold Christie's 26 April 1946(17), bt. Leggatt.

7. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8×30 (53.7×76.2); inscribed ‘John Constable. ARA. pinxt. 1820.’.

8. In a letter of 19 January 1841 (Coll. Mrs E. Constable) from Leslie to Constable's daughter Maria, who had disposed of the picture to her friend Miss Spedding. Leslie was sending Maria quotations from her father's letter to Fisher of 23 October 1821 because they ‘may perhaps be interesting to Miss Spedding as they shew what were the feelings with which he painted such pictures as the one she possesses, which represents, as you have probably mentioned to her, Dedham Mill on the river Stour’. Leslie goes on to say that Constable's letter, which is the famous one about ‘Old rotten Banks, slimy posts’ etc., was written in 1821, ‘the year after Miss Spedding's picture was painted’. A reference at the end of the letter suggests that Miss Spedding had only just become the possessor of the picture: ‘I hope soon to hear from you that Miss Spedding has received the picture in safety’.

9. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2×30 1/2 (54.6×77.5); inscribed ‘John Constable. London.’; formerly in the Spedding family.

10. Oil on panel, 11×14 1/2 (28×36.9), sold Sotheby's 15 April 1953 (46), bt. E. Stokes. The picture can just be discerned in a photograph of one of the rooms at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition, published in Sir Isidore Spielmann, Souvenir of the Fine Art Section, Franco-British Exhibition 1908, facing p.20. The work was No.22 in the exhibition, lent by George Hilditch. Presumably it was the ‘Sketch of a Mill on the Stour’ which ‘Hilditch’ bought at the Constable sale on 16 May 1838 (39).

11. See note 8 above.

12. W.T. Whitley, Art in England 1800–1820, Cambridge 1928, p.299. The Whitley Papers (Dept. of Prints and Drawings, British Museum) give The Literary Gazette, 1819, p.154, as the source of this information. I am grateful to Judy Ivy for telling me that J. Pinhorn is also named as the purchaser in Annals of the Fine Arts, IV, 1819, No.12, p.122.


Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981

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Constable first mentioned the picture that would be known as The Lock in a letter to John Fisher of October 31, 1822: "I have got an excellent subject for a six foot canvas which I should certainly paint for next year...but I have neither time nor money to speculate with, & my children begin to swarm."1 Family illness (“anxiety--watching--& nursing--& my own present indisposition")2 kept him away from his easel from Christmas to February. But on February 21, 1823, he wrote to Fisher, "I have put a large upright landscape in hand, and I hope to get it ready for the Academy."3This large upright was almost certainly the Philadelphia Sketch for "A Boat Passing a Lock.” The subject is the opening of sluice gates to lower the level of water in the upper lock, where a barge waits before continuing its journey upstream. The site shown is Flatford on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the distance and Flatford Mill at the spectator's back. The painting's shape was originally horizontal, as were all Constable's other six-foot academy "set pieces" and as later versions of The Lock theme would also be (see horizontal versions The Lock, 1826, oil on canvas, 40 x 50" {101.6 x 127 cm.}, London, Royal Academy and The Lock, c. 1826, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 51 1/8" {102.9 x 129.8 cm.}, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria). But Constable added to the canvas at the top and cut down (by how much we do not know) on the right. The change in shape presumably took place between the letter of October 1822 and the one of February 1823. No preliminary drawings for the Philadelphia Museum of Art full-sized sketch are known, and indeed, the many changes to the shape and the composition of the sketch suggest that the artist worked partly by instinct, drastically rearranging and reshaping as he worked. Staley has suggested that one reason the Philadelphia sketch might not have been developed further is that Constable made too many changes for the alterations not to be noticeable and so decided to start on a fresh canvas.4 On the reverse of this canvas is a fragmentary sketch of a young girl. The differences between the full-sized sketch and the finished version (John Constable, A Boat Passing a Lock, 1824, oil on canvas, 56 x 47 1/2" {142.2 x 120.6 cm.} Gloucestershire, Sudeley Castle, Trustees of the Walter Morrison Pictures Settlement), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824, bought by the draper James Morrison (1790-1857) and now at Sudeley Castle (henceforth: Morrison version), are instructive. The Morrison version lacks the additions at the top (and bottom), thus indicating that Constable worked on an intact canvas, making no substantial changes in the composition. X-radiographs show that in the Philadelphia sketch the artist originally included crossbeams over the lock, used presumably to reinforce the sides of the lock. These were painted out almost certainly for purely aesthetic reasons: to include them at close range meant blotting out large areas of tree, sky, and distance. These crossbeams are also omitted in the Morrison version. Constable's touch is surer in the Morrison picture and he brings his details to a high degree of finish: the sky is bright blue, the clouds fleecy white, the waistcoat of the navigator (or navvy) working the lock is bright red; the articulation of foreground, middleground, and distance is much clearer; the plants in the foreground are probably identifiable, which is not true of those in the Philadelphia sketch; and the complicated spatial structure of the lock itself, its intricate architecture, is the chief interest of the left half of the Morrison picture. In the Philadelphia version the navvy has just put down his fishing rod to attend to his duties. This genre-like incident Constable abandoned in the finished painting for two reasons. First, by eliminating the narrative element, the artist could stabilize the scene, suppressing the particular to emphasize the timeless; and second, the fascinating shape of the wooden lock, which draws the eye from left to right across the foreground of the picture, needed a stronger element than the slim fishing rod to connect it with the right foreground. What we feel most in the Morrison picture is its freshness. Much more than in the Philadelphia sketch the artist caught the effect with heavy white impasto of water rushing out of the sluice gates at the lower left, so that we all but hear the sound of the creaking wooden gates and bubbling water foam. The artist might almost have intended the Morrison version to illustrate his remarks to Fisher in a letter of October 23, 1821: "The sound of water escaping from Mill dams...Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things....As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such Places."5 Twice Constable described his lock in similar language. To Fisher he wrote: "It is a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively--& soothing--calm and exhilarating, fresh--& blowing,''6 and again on April 13, 1825, speaking of the Morrison version which was back in his studio for Samuel William Revnolds (1774-1834) to engrave: "My Lock is now on my easil. It looks most beautifully silvery, windy & delicious--it is all health--& the absence of every thing stagnant, and is wonderfully got together after only this one year."7 The loss of time through illness meant that The Lock was not ready for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1823 but was sent to the 1824 exhibition instead. Even by September 30, 1823, the artist did not know what his large subject for the academy of 1824 would be,8 and only on December 16, 1823, did he tell Fisher firmly that he would work on "my Lock."9 On April 15, 1824, while preparing for the academy, Constable wrote to Fisher, "I was never more fully bent on any picture than on that on which you left me engaged upon. It is going to its audit with all its deficiencies in hand--my friends all tell me it is my best. Be that as it may I have done my best. It is a good subject and an admirable instance of the picturesque."10On the opening day of the exhibition James Morrison bought The Lock. It was the most popular picture Constable had so far painted, if one excepts the French response to his Hay Wain which would be acclaimed later in 1824 at the Paris Salon. The Literary Gazette compared Constable to Richard Wilson (1713-1782);11 the aged Fuseli (1741-1825), leaning on the porter's arm, visited the picture every Sunday morning.12 On May 8, Constable wrote jubilantly to Fisher: "My picture is liked at the Academy. Indeed it forms a decided feature and its light cannot be put out, because it is the light of nature--the Mother of all that is valuable in poetry, painting or anything else."13 Perhaps the most welcome praise came from the engraver S. W. Reynolds, who offered to engrave the landscape gratis, because "take it for all in all, since the days of Gainsborough and Wilson, no landscape has been painted with so much truth and originality, so much art, so little artifice."14So deeply did Constable feel about his lock subject that he copied it in an upright format at least once (see upright version Landscape--A Barge Passing a Lock on the Stour, 1825, oil on canvas, 55 x 48" {139.7 x 122 cm.}, Hon. William Hamilton Collection, England) and allowed John Dunthorne to copy it under his supervision (but which of the versions this is is not certain). Then in 1825 he undertook the same subject in a horizontal format for the dealer James Carpenter (b. c. 1760). He never gave this picture to Carpenter but submitted it instead as his diploma work to the Royal Academy (The Lock, 1826, oil on canvas, 40 x 50” {101.6 x 127 cm.}, London, Royal Academy). Recalling that the artist originally conceived of the Philadelphia version as a horizontal picture with crossbeams on the lock,15 we might visualize his original intentions by looking to an earlier series, the Mill at Dedham (1818-19, 21 x 30 1/2”, London, Tate Gallery).16 In these views of a lock and mill the artist took a long view of the scene, from perhaps a quarter mile away, which enabled him to include the crossbeams over the lock but also forced him to show the mill buildings at the left. The artistic problem presented by the lock series, begun with the Philadelphia sketch, was to depict a similar scene from close by. In the fall of 1827 Constable revisited the site of Flatford Lock. At that time he executed a drawing on the spot showing the lock with crossbeams and willow tree (not the elm that appears in the Philadelphia and Morrison pictures). This drawing, on paper watermarked 1824, is now in the British Museum, and of all the lock paintings and sketches probably shows the site as it really was (John Constable, Flatford Lock, 1827, pencil on paper, watermarked 1824, 8 3/4 x 12 7/8" {22.2 x 32.7 cm.}, London, British Museum). Slightly earlier than the British Museum sketch is a pen and ink drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum (John Constable, The Lock, c.1826, pen and sepia wash on paper, 11 1/4 x 14 1/2” {28 x 36.8 cm.} Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum), which is preparatory to the diploma picture. In both the British Museum and Fitzwilliam sketches, Constable wrestled with the problem of depicting the scene as it appeared in reality. The only way to include the crossbeams without throwing off the composition seems to have been to take a longer view of the lock so that the beams would be below the horizon, and this long view could only be achieved by standing (theoretically) in a boat in the river. In what may be the unfinished preparatory oil sketch for the diploma picture, now in Melbourne (John Constable, The Lock, c. 1826, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 51 1/8” {102.9 x 129.8 cm.}, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest), Constable once again painted in the crossbeams, as in the Philadelphia sketch for the Morrison picture; but once again he found they did not work and painted them out. In the diploma picture the artist was defeated by the problem, and the crossbeams do not appear. The other important difference in the Melbourne oil sketch and Royal Academy diploma picture is that the barge is traveling downstream, waiting for the navvy to raise the level of the water before the boat can enter the lock. Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 50-55.

1. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence. 6 vols. Ipswich,1962-68, vol. 6, p. 100.
2. Constable to Fisher, February 1, 1823, ibid., p. 109.
3. Ibid., p. 112.
4. Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts. Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and Drawings, 1760-1860 1968 (by Frederick Cummings, Allen Staley, and Robert Rosenblum), no. 128.
5. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence. 6 vols. Ipswich,1962-68, vol. 6, p. 77.
6. Ibid., p. 198.
7. Ibid., p. 200.
8. Ibid., p. 133.
9. Ibid., p. 146.
10. Ibid., p. 155.
11. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 340. See also Basil Taylor. Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 2nd cd., rev. and enl. London, 1975, p. 207.
12. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. 5, p. 61.
13. Ibid., vol. 6, p.157
14. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 266.
15. This was strictly accurate, but their absence was not particularly noticed by a Mrs. Godfrey of East Bergholt who in 1824 told Constable after seeing the Morrison picture at the academy that it flattered the spot bur did not belye nature." See Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 1, p. 211.
16. Robert Hoozee. L'Opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, no. 256, repro. Versions also in London, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Manchester, New Hampshire, Currier Gallery of Art.

LITERATURE:
Catalogue of Oil Paintings by the Old Masters in the Possession of E.A. Leatham, Esq. Misarden Park, Gloucestershire (1898), p. 5; C. J. Holmes, Constable and His Influence on Landscape Painting. London, 1902.pp. 121, 247; Lord Windsor. John Constable, R.A. London and New York, 1903, p.203; William Roberts. "English Pictures in America." The Nineteenth Century, September 1913, p.541; "A Group of Paintings in the McFadden Collection." The American Magazine of Art, vol. 8, no. 3 (January 1917), repro. p. 108; William Roberts. "English Pictures in America." The Nineteenth Century, September 1913, pp. 3-5; William Roberts. "Recent Additions to Mr. McFadden's Collection." Art in America, vol. 6, no. 2 (February 1918), pp. 108-17. p. 114; William Roberts. "The John H. McFadden Collection II Landscape and Subject Pictures." The Connoisseur, vol. 53 (January 1919), p. 14, repro. p. 9; "Philadelphia's Diamond Jubilee," The Connoisseur, vol. 126 (October 1950), p. 130, repro. p. 131; "The Diamond Jubilee Exhibition," Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 45, no. 224 (winter 1950), p. 81, repro. p. 79; Andrew Shirley. "John Constable's 'Lock': The Newly Discovered Study." The Connoisseur, vol. 127 (May 1951), p.73, repro. p. 74; R. B. Beckett, John Constable and the Fishers: The Record of a Friendship (London, 1952), p. 121; R. B. Beckett. "Constable's 'Lock."' The Burlington Magazine, vol. 94, no. 594 (September 1952), pp. 255, 256, p. 253, fig 8; Frank Simpson. "Constable's 'Lock': A Postscript." The Connoisseur, vol. 12; Helen Comstock. "Constable in America." The Connoisseur, vol. 137 (May 1956), p. 282; W. G. Constable. "'The Lock' as a Theme in the Work of John Constable." In In Honour of Daryl Lindsay: Essays and Studies, edited by Franz Philipp and June Stewart. Melbourne, 1964. pp. 131, 134, pl. 117; Graham Reynolds. Constable: The Natural Painter. London, 1965. 2nd ed., London, 1976, pp. 73, 142, pl. 41; R.B Beckett, ed. Johny Constable's Correspondance. 6 vols. Ipswich, 1962-68, vol. 2, pp. 279-80, vol. 6, pp. 100, 101, 112, 114; Washinton, D.C., National Gallery of Art. John Constable: A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1969 (by Ross Watson and John Walker), see no. 29; Staley, "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma-Tadema." Apollo n.s., vol.100, July 1974, pp. 37-38; Basil Taylor, Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 1975, pp. 207-8, n. 39, pl. 100; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (Arts Council of Great Britain). John Constable, R.A., 1766-1837: A Catalogue of Drawings and Watercolors with a Selection of Mezzortints by David Lucas...in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1976, p. 108; London, Tate Gallery. Constalbe: Paintings, Watercolours, and Drawings, Febuary 18-April 25, 1976 (by Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-William, and Conal Shields).1976, p. 138; Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks, Constable and His Country (London, 1976), p. 138; John Walker, John Constable. London, 1979, pl. 38; Robert Hoozee. L'Opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, no. 404; Graham Reynolds. The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1984, vol. 1, p. 135.

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