JOHN CONSTABLE R.A.
FEN LANE, EAST BERGHOLT
Sir Donald Currie by 1894
Private Collector and by descent in that family
Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition , 1894, no.13
Isetan Museum of Art, Tokyo, John Constable, 1986, no.18
Tate Gallery, London, Constable, 1991, no.91
University of Essex, Constable and Wivenhoe Park: Reality and Vision, 2000
Ian Fleming-Williams,Tokyo Constable, Burlington Magazine, May 1986, p.384, fig.77
Malcolm Cormack, Constable in Japan, Apollo, June 1986, p.428, fig.1
Michael Rosenthal, A Constable Re-appearance and the Road to Damascus, Apollo, Dec. 1990, pp.402-406
Graham Reynolds, The Early Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1996, no.16.107, no. 1366, illus.
The painting was acquired by the Tate , in memory of the distinguished Constable scholar Leslie Parris, with generous contributions from the National Art Collections Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Tate Members and the Tate American Fund, with funds provided by Sir Edwin and Lady Manton.
In May 1812, Constable wrote to his future wife, Maria Bicknell: ‘I have always succeeded best with my native scenes, they have always charmed me and always will’. Throughout his life he was to make a virtue of this inclination, and to paint only those subjects that had significant associations for him. His name has been identified with a particular location – a few square miles on the borders of Essex and Suffolk – ever since his own day, yet the scenes he painted there have come to represent the whole of the English countryside. This view of a Suffolk lane on a morning in high summer takes us into the heart of Constable country. Fen Lane (still recognisable today) winds ahead of us beyond the open gate; as a boy, the artist walked along here on his way to school in Dedham from his native village of East Bergholt. To the left, there is a glimpse of the River Stour as it meanders through the valley, and to the right is the familiar landmark of Dedham Church. Beneath a blustery sky, the reapers have just started harvesting. The scene is a pictorial counterpart to Constable’s comment that ‘Painting is but another word for feeling, and I associate my “careless boyhood” to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter (& I am grateful)’.
This painting can almost certainly be dated to the summer of 1817, and is very probably one of the ‘studies’ or ‘sketches’ mentioned by Constable to Joseph Farington on 11 November; on 24 November the diarist noted that William Redmore Bigg R.A. had spoken ‘very favourably of Constable’s oil sketches done in the summer’. The reappearance of Fen Lane, unknown to modern scholars until the mid 1980s, led to a new understanding of Constable’s methods at this period, in particular the subtly changing way in which he approached the practice and purpose of working from nature. Until around 1814, he had prepared for any intended easel picture by means of a series of small scale oil sketches, but abandoned this procedure in favour of preliminary pencil drawings, prior to working on the canvas directly from the motif, occasional oil sketches serving to clarify particular details. This method may be observed, for instance, in Boat Building, 1814 (London, Victoria & Albert Museum), which Constable’s friend and biographer C.R.Leslie specifically noted as having been painted in the open, and for which the artist made a preparatory pencil drawing. By around 1816, it appears that he was attempting to paint surprisingly large canvases en plein air, such as Wivenhoe Park, Essex (Washington, National Gallery of Art), nearly forty inches in width; again, he made preliminary pencil studies, though it is worth noting that while it was indeed painted outdoors, it is not a simple transcription of what he saw from a fixed viewpoint. While he was undoubtedly concerned with capturing some sort of ‘truth’ from nature, this resolve should not be equated with the unselective recording of all that lay before him.
Fen Lane may be grouped with Tate Britain’s Dedham Lock and Mill; East Bergholt Church (Durban, Museum and Art Gallery); and perhaps the Study for ‘The Cornfield’ (Private Collection, on loan to Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery). They share the same working method, perceptively analysed by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams in 1985 and by Michael Rosenthal in 1990. All these subjects seem to have held a special resonance for Constable at this time. In October 1816, he and Maria Bicknell had at last been able to marry; their life was henceforward to be based in London. By the summer of 1817, both his parents had died, and the family house was about to be sold. The extended visit – some ten weeks, from 8 August – that he and the now pregnant Maria were to spend in East Bergholt seems to have taken on the character of a valedictory visit, during which he set out to gather as much visual material as he could. Constable had in fact made a short preliminary visit in July (perhaps to deal with family matters), and seems then to have begun planning to paint this view of Fen Lane, for the preliminary pencil drawing (London, Victoria & Albert Museum) is dated 25 July 1817. Parris and Fleming-Williams made the acute observation (which equally applies to the other works in this series) that the lower viewpoint in the preparatory drawings is accounted for by the fact that Constable must have sat to make them, while the paintings can only – given their size – have been on an easel, at which he would have stood, and thus had a higher viewpoint. At some point, a Latin verse was inscribed on the verso of this sheet, which is from a dismembered sketchbook, while the verso of another sheet bears free translations both by Constable’s close friend John Fisher and the latter’s brother-in-law Christopher Cookson.
Fisher’s version reads
This spot saw the day spring of my Life,
Hours of Joy, and years of Happiness.
This place first tinged my boyish fancy with a love of the art,
This place was the origin of my fame.
Constable was subsequently to use the Latin verse beneath the mezzotint of his birthplace, the frontispiece to English Landscape Scenery, 1832. In both instances, they underline the element of autobiographical narrative associated by Constable with his early surroundings.
Constable’s methods of painting from nature at this time may be closely observed in Fen Lane. He began by blocking in the composition, and then worked in detail from the centre outwards, analogous to the way in which the human eye perceives a subject, so that the periphery of the field of vision is less distinct. Thus the trees and the rutted lane, the gate and the hedgerow growth to the right, are carefully detailed, while the panorama of the cornfield and the distant valley are more broadly handled, and the left foreground is simply blocked in. Michael Rosenthal has plausibly suggested that Constable worked on this canvas in the mornings – to judge from the sun’s position – and then moved down Fen Lane, perhaps stopping to work on the Study for ‘The Cornfield’ around midday and then on to Dedham to paint Dedham Mill in the afternoon.
Fen Lane was painted from nature; yet it is not an oil sketch in the same sense as his pre-1814 small-scale oil studies. This is more carefully considered, more carefully prepared and more painstakingly finished, though incomplete. It may be supposed that he intended to fully resolve it on his return to London, but for some reason failed to do so. ‘Natural peinture’ though it is, one should not forget that Constable also looked at nature as a picture. Even in a subject such as this, the influence of Claude, whom he admired above all other artists, was never entirely absent. ‘No great painter was ever self taught’, he noted in his 1836 lecture on the Origin of Landscape, and as he wrote to his fellow artist David Wilkie, he felt ‘a duty … to tell the world that there is such a thing as landscape existing with Art’. In Fen Lane and other paintings of this kind, Constable seems to be narrowing the gap between sketch and finished picture, imbuing the latter with much of the freshness of an on the spot study, and still more importantly, imposing on the former some of the contrivances of picture making.