Constable's oil sketches

In preparation for the V&A's 2014 major exhibition, 'Constable: Making of a Master' a number of the Museum's oil sketches by John Constable were remounted and reframed. The process revealed many surprising discoveries, including a previously unrecorded work, hidden by an old canvas lining.

Constable's oil sketches are fascinating objects to study individually. Preparing the works for the exhibition provided a unique opportunity to examine the sketches out of their frames and mounts. As well as completing routine condition checking, we were able to study them under the microscope and using other imaging techniques like x-radiography.

Constable's techniques
It is well known that Constable often painted on thin homemade card (made from two or three pieces of paper glued and pressed together). Before he painted on the paper laminate, he applied a coloured 'ground' (an initial coating or priming) to the entire sheet. Constable used the colour of these grounds which were often left visible in places to give a particular atmosphere to his scenes. This can be seen with two scenes painted on Brighton Beach in 1824. He used a pink ground for a sunny evening in July and a brown ground for a stormy day with dark clouds approaching.

2006bd7924 brighton beach, july, 1280
Brighton Beach, oil painting, John Constable, 1824, England. Museum no. 335-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
2006bd6350 brighton beach stormy
Brighton Beach, oil sketch, John Constable, 1824, England. Museum no. 783-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Constable usually painted oil sketches outdoors – as in his study of Dedham Lock and Mill – so that he could quickly and freely capture the ever-changing light and movement in the landscape. Later in the studio, he could refer back to these sketches as he planned larger compositions. Constable also sketched small objects and vignettes, using the oil medium to consider subjects simultaneously through form, colour and texture. In these small paintings, which were intended to be impressions and not final works, we can really see the artist's virtuoso painting ability to create fresh and spontaneous illustrations of the world around him. We can see how rapidly they were painted as brushstrokes of different colours were mixed together on the sketch.

2014ha9996 2560
Dedham Lock and Mill, oil painting, John Constable, 1816, England. Museum no. 145-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This technique is also known as 'alla prima' (from the Italian, meaning 'at first attempt'). Looking at the sketches under the microscope really brought to light Constable's use of the technique. Swirls of colour demonstrate how one colour was blended into the next, to capture the mood and feel of a subject at that moment in time.

2015hw5082 2560
Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, oil painting, John Constable, 1811, England. Museum no. 325-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

New discoveries
Sometimes Constable used a full piece of paper for a sketch while on other occasions he cut sheets into smaller sections. On the back of one full sketch, Study of Poppies (1832), we can even see how he planned out the ways he might divide a full sheet of paper.

Poppies
Left to right: Study of Poppies (front), oil painting, John Constable, 1832, England. Museum no. 329-1888. Study of poppies (back), oil painting, John Constable, 1832, England. Museum no. 329-1888 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Constable scholars, of course, knew of the existence of these drawings on the back of the sketches. However, in our study, we discovered two sketches that we could show originally came from the same piece of paper. Not only did the paper match when we looked at the reverse, but both sketches had the same ground colour and were dated to within eight days of each other. We could place the sheets side by side and show that the two edges fitted together perfectly.

Plough cut
Left to right: A Study of Two Ploughs, John Constable, 1814. Museum no. 789-1888. Study of a Cart with Two Horses, John Constable, 1814. Museum no. 333-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the most exciting things about examining the unframed Constable sketches was discovering unlikely surprises on the back. On the reverse of one sketch, Constable describes the scene he is painting, noting:

Very lovely evening – looking Eastward – cliffs & light off a dark grey sky – effect – background – very white and golden light.

There is also the beginning of a note to his great friend, John Fisher, writing that the day had been his daughter's birthday.

Brighton beach
Brighton Beach, with Colliers, oil painting (with reverse view showing hand-written notes), John Constable, 1824, England. Museum no. 591-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On the back of another drawing, we found what appeared to be a child's drawing in white chalk leading us to speculate if Constable let his children sketch alongside him.

Childs drawing
Chalk diagram on the reverse of Study of Poppies, John Constable, about 1832, England. Museum no. 329-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Landscape with a kiln
The incredible discovery of a previously unrecorded oil sketch concealed beneath a lining canvas was made by V&A paintings Conservators Clare Richardson and Nicola Costaras. As the old canvas lining from Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead (1821 – 2) had become loose, the conservators decided to remove it. They discovered that there was, in fact, a previously unknown and completely intact oil sketch hidden on the reverse.

2013ga8901 2560
Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, oil painting, John Constable, 1821 – 1822, England. Museum no. 125-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

X-radiography had previously suggested evidence of another composition behind Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, but it was assumed to be simply traces of an over-painted scene.

2011er0225 2560
X-radiograph of Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, John Constable, 1821 – 1822, England. Museum no. 125-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Constable is known to have been thrifty with his artist's materials and sometimes painted sketches on both sides of a support. Six of his oil sketches in our collection were already known to be double-sided. The Museum register for 1888 indicates that some of these artworks arrived without mounts. Several double-sided works were recorded on receipt, while others arrived framed – as a result, scenes on the reverse were not noticed until later.

2013ga8902 2560
Landscape with a kiln, oil painting, John Constable, 1821 – 1822, England. Museum no. 125-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The new oil sketch, which has been given the title Landscape with a kiln, depicts a narrow clearing fringed by trees, set against an unsettled sky, a wedge-shaped expanse of dark clouds at the lower left parts to reveal a stretch of blue sky with white clouds.

In the foreground a brown cylindrical structure with a waft of smoke is visible, most probably representing a kiln. The scene was probably made in the late summer of 1821 or 1822, when Constable painted a number of sketches featuring similar cloud studies and motifs.

New sketch details
Landscape with a kiln (details), oil painting, John Constable, 1821 – 1822, England. Museum no. 125-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Find out more about John Constable

Back to the top