John Constable R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London) Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage

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Lot 31*
John Constable R.A.
(East Bergholt 1776-1837 London)
Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage

Sold for £ 869,000 (US$ 1,132,046) inc. premium
John Constable R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London)
Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage
oil on canvas
16.2 x 24cm (6 3/8 x 9 7/16in).


  • Provenance
    Isabel Constable (1822-1888), the artist's daughter
    With Old World Art Inc., New York, 1941, where purchased by
    Viola Bray, Michigan, USA (1873-1961) and by descent through the family to the present owner

    At just under seven by ten inches this small canvas conveys all the brilliance of Constable's full-scale masterpieces. Remarkably for such a small sketch it has more in common with the artist's relatively finished six foot sketches than it does with the numerous studies that he produced on a similar scale. Depicting a breezy English late summer scene with a distant rainstorm and a sunburst lighting up a field of haystacks, this painting eloquently conveys the translucent reflections on moving water and the organic textures of both the natural and the man-made as only Constable was able to do. When this technical poetry is combined with the evocative associations of the place with which we most identify the artist, this small gem comprises on a cabinet scale all that is Constable's genius and that for which he is so deservedly loved.

    The view Constable chose to take here – showing the reach of the Stour between Flatford Lock and Bridge Cottage - is a setting that remained close to the artist's heart throughout his life. His single-mindedness in repeatedly portraying a limited range of favoured sites was unprecedented and ultimately enabled him to raise the status of landscape to the equal of history painting, something previously unheard of. Consequently this scene which he knew so intimately is today one of the most iconic in British art. Flatford Lock which we see here in the right foreground was first constructed in its wooden form in 1776 – the year Constable was born. The family living in Bridge Cottage, seen here beyond the lock, were the tenants of the artist's father, Golding Constable, a Suffolk entrepreneur. They collected tolls from the lighters passing through and may have provided here an area for rest and refreshment for the families who operated the commercial barge route along this part of the River Stour.

    The finished subject of this sketch was Constable's main submission to the Royal Academy in the summer of 1813 (Landscape: Boys Fishing). Thought to be the canvas, 40 x 49 1/2 in., now at Anglesey Abbey (although this has been questioned owing to its poor state of preservation which considerably masks its original character and quality), the composition is best known from David Lucas's mezzotint, 'A Lock on the Stour, County of Suffolk (Landscape: Boys fishing)' published in Part IV of English Landscape Scenery, 1831; see fig. 1. Four other oil sketches made in preparation for the exhibited picture are known: formerly Merz Collection, oil on canvas, 26.6 x 31.8 cm.; Private Collection, on loan to the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, oil on canvas, 17.8 x 22.8 cm.; Musée du Louvre, RF 1937-.23, oil on paper laid on panel, 12 x 19.5 cm.; with John Mitchell, 1946, present whereabouts unknown, oil, 25.9 x 31 cm. The first two of these had been in the collection of Isabel Constable. They both incorporated two boys fishing, though in the sketches they are doing so in the lock rather than above it as in the finished picture. Detailed pencil drawings of the group of trees on the left (Trees at Flatford, pencil, 47 x 29.1 cm., Horne Foundation, Florence, 5993) and of the lock gates (private collection, 27.3 x 45 cm.; see fig. 2) are also known. The drawing of trees matches the composition of the present sketch very closely and both these drawings were used as a cartoon for the exhibited version of Landscape: Boys Fishing (see Graham Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1996, nos. 13.1, 13.1A, 13.3-13.8, pp. 179-181).

    Anne Lyles, to whom we are grateful for her assistance in cataloguing the present work, dates it to 1811-12 and, owing to its freedom of execution, combined with the amount of information it contains, suggests that it is the starting point for the other sketches in preparation for the painting Constable exhibited in 1813 and almost certainly a plein-air sketch, judging by handling, colouring, appearance, and also the fact that, unlike most of the others, it has no figures. Indeed, the exciting re-emergence of this magical small canvas must now be regarded as the most substantial surviving record of the exhibited work, in which in Robert Hunt's description in his review of the 1813 exhibition he recorded the 'silvery, sparkling ... greyish green colouring of our English summer landscapes.'

    A 19th century label on the stretcher reads '"Flatford Lock" by John Constable R.A./Late the property of Miss Isabel Constable deceased.' Isabel was Constable's last surviving daughter; she never married and her siblings Lionel and Minna (Maria Louise) both left their share of their father's studio to her. The year she herself died she bequeathed over four hundred oils, watercolours and sketches to the Victoria and Albert Museum and other institutions as well as gifting a number of works to her nephews. Additionally there was a show of works from her estate at the Grosvenor Galleries in 1889 followed by two sales at Christie's in 1891 and 1892, giving some sense of the volume of material in her collection.

    Viola Bray (see fig. 3) was a collector and philanthropist, a lifelong resident of Flint, Michigan who endowed its Institute of Arts with a collection of over sixty Renaissance and Baroque works of art as well as a spectacular gallery in which to display them and a charitable trust which has enabled significant further acquisitions. In addition to the majestic cycle of ten French tapestries commissioned by Mazarin in 1633 from designs by Simon Vouet, she donated a collection of Renaissance and Baroque furniture, maiolica and sculpture and a painting by Rubens. None of these works had come from her home, all having been acquired with the express intention of establishing the bequest; purchases were made on trips to the East Coast as well as to Europe when, no doubt, Viola Bray also bought paintings for her personal collection.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note there is additional provenance information available on this lot: By 1904 the painting was in the collection of John Wanamaker (1838-1922), the Philadelphia marketing entrepreneur who was one of the pioneers of the concept of the department store. His substantial private art collection was published in a book compiled by E.C. Siter with the binder's title 'Lindenhurst Galleries 1904'. The provenance and literature should therefore read: Provenance Isabel Constable (1822-1888), the artist's daughter The collection of John Wanamaker, (1838-1922) Philadelphia, by 1904 (no. 147 in the catalogue, 'CONSTABLE, John. R.A. Lock on Stour (Flatford Lock). On canvas, 6 x 9') With Old World Art Inc., New York, 1941, where purchased by Viola Bray, (1873-1961) Michigan, and by descent through the family to the present owner Literature E.C. Siter, Lindenhurst Galleries 1904, Catalogue of the collection of pictures by the Old Masters & of the Early English Schools & Mihaly Munkacsy compiled from the latest biographies, encyclopedias [sic] & museum catalogues, publ. Times Printing House, Philadelphia, no. 147, ill., plate 141
John Constable R.A. (East Bergholt 1776-1837 London) Flatford Lock on the Stour looking towards Bridge Cottage
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