CONSTABLE, John
(b. 1776, East Bergholt, d. 1837, Hampstead)

Weymouth Bay, with Jordan Hill

1816
Oil on canvas, 53 x 75 cm
National Gallery, London

Constable met Maria Bicknell in 1800, when she was thirteen. She was the granddaughter of the rich Dr Rhudde, Rector of East Bergholt, Constable's native village. In 1811 they became engaged, but Maria's father, Solicitor to the Admiralty, and especially her grandfather the rector, opposed her union to 'a man below her in point of fortune, and...without a profession'. Constable's friend and biographer C.R. Leslie reports that for five years Maria was treated 'as if she were a boarding-school girl in danger of falling a prey to a fortune-hunter'. At 29, however, 'she felt entitled to determine for herself a matter which so entirely affected her own happiness.' They were married on 2 October 1816 at St Martin's Church by Constable's friend the Reverend John Fisher. Fisher invited them to stay with his wife of three months and himself in Osmington near Weymouth, 'The country here is wonderfully wild and sublime, and well worth a painter's visit.'

There is some disagreement over whether this painting of Weymouth Bay is a sketch painted out of doors during Constable's honeymoon, or a later work prepared for sale on the basis of sketches made at this time and left unfinished. It seems so fresh and spontaneous that most viewers have wished it to be a direct record of Constable's visit, his easel set a little west of Redcliff Point, facing Jordan Hill and Furzy Cliff on a gusty October day. The reddish brown of the priming shows through the blue sky and water, lending a warm glow to the landscape, which is framed and 'pushed back' by a promontory on the right and rocks and pebbles at the lower edge, painted freely but in greater detail than the rest. The glory of Weymouth Bay, however is the cloudscape: clouds rising from the horizon to form the 'vault of the sky', that pictorial discovery of Dutch seventeenth-century marine painting.

Constable's early employment in his father's mill must indeed have alerted him to the appearance and behaviour of clouds. It is all the more moving, therefore, to find that in his youthful exertions to train himself in art he had sat down and carefully copied and labelled a series of cloud patterns published in 1785 for the use of his pupils by Alexander Cozens, a landscape painter and drawing master. There are no more truthful studies of clouds than those by Constable, but even the observant windmiller had to acquire a vocabulary of representation before setting them down in paint.