John Constable R.A. (Suffolk 1776-1837 Hampstead) A Sea Beach - Brighton

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Lot 28
John Constable R.A.
(Suffolk 1776-1837 Hampstead)
A Sea Beach - Brighton

£ 400,000 - 600,000
US$ 520,000 - 780,000
John Constable R.A. (Suffolk 1776-1837 Hampstead)
A Sea Beach - Brighton
oil on canvas
65.6 x 100.5cm (25 13/16 x 39 9/16in).


  • Provenance
    Vernon C Brown
    With John Mitchell, London
    With Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1946
    By whom sold, Sotheby's, 6 April 1993, lot 69 (as attributed to John Constable)
    Private Collection, Detroit

    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Paintings, Drawings and Prints by J.M.W Turner, John Constable and R P Bonington, 1946, cat. no. 136
    Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., and Smith College, Jongkind and the Pre-Impressionists: Painters of the École Saint-Simeon, 1976-1977, cat. no. 50

    An Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Turner, Constable, Bonington, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1946, no. 136, p. 45.
    "Turner-Constable-Bonington," (exh. review), Connoisseur, vol. CXVIII, Sept. 1946, p. 43
    H. Read, The Meaning of Art, London, 1949, p. 139, pl. 146
    H.Comstock, 'Constable in America', in Connoisseur, vol. CXXXVII, May 1956, p.288, ill. pl 8
    Jongkind and the Pre-Impressionists: Painters of the École Saint-Siméon, exh. cat., Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., and Smith College, 1976-1977, no. 50, p. 84.
    R.Hoozee, L'Opera Completa di Constable, Milan, 1979, no.653
    G. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, London, 1984, p.150

    John Constable began visiting Brighton in 1824 for the health of his wife, Maria, who was consumptive and of their eldest child, John Charles, who was also sickly. Although he did not much care for the bustle and noise of Brighton's fashionable visitors, describing the town as 'nothing less than Piccadilly "by the seaside"', he found the ever-changing sky and sea completely enthralling and began sketching on the spot in oil, pencil and pen and ink. More than 60 works related to Brighton are recorded from this year alone.

    The composition of A Sea Beach - Brighton is familiar to us from the mezzotint produced by David Lucas in 1830 for Various Subjects of Landscape, characteristic of English Scenery from Pictures Painted by John Constable RA (see fig.1). The spirited small oil sketch in the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts is considered to be the picture on which the mezzotint is based (see fig. 2). The Detroit picture has all the hallmarks of a plein air sketch: violent pencil underdrawing and swift application of the paint to the paper.

    Our painting has many of the same qualities, but because of its size, was clearly worked on in the studio from earlier sketches. It differs from the Detroit picture in various details: the disposition of the figures, the addition of sails and nets drying and the large anchor embedded in the sand in the right foreground. Furthermore, the palette is more sombre and monochrome and the lighting more dramatic. The weather is more turbulent, in fact more reminiscent of the climate in the Brighton drawings of 1828 produced at a time when Maria's health was rapidly declining.

    Our painting was squared for transfer by Constable and recent cleaning for a BBC programme has made this visible to the naked eye. Quite where this places A Sea Beach - Brighton in the genesis of the subject is a matter of conjecture as no other squared versions of this composition survive. Peter Harrap, who is curating the exhibition mentioned below, has pointed out that John Arrowsmith the dealer in Paris who had taken the Hay Wain to the Salon of 1824 refers to 'The Brighton Sea piece' in a letter of 21 December 1824 and again as a P.S to a letter of 20 March 1825, he writes 'think on my Brighton Sea Piece', which sounds very much like a commission, which Constable never got round to completing. In a letter of 9 December 1835 to C.R. Leslie, Constable says that Edward Carey of Philadelphia, a relative of Leslie's brother-in-law wanted him to 'send him a picture which I have not got nor ever have. But through the kindness of your sister he has seen the book (English Landscape Scenery) and has taken a liking to The Sea Beach – thinking, no doubt, that it was done from something more than the sketch'. Graham Reynolds took this to mean that all other versions, other than the Detroit one, of the subject were spurious, but it could be that Carey's interest in the mezzotint inspired Constable to produce a more elaborate version of the subject after 1835, or that he simply did not consider such a free and spirited large sketch as A Sea Beach - Brighton which could have already been in his studio since the Arrowsmith commission to be an appropriate purchase.

    What is undeniable is that this large canvas perfectly evokes the text to the mezzotint in which Constable wrote 'the magnitude of a coming wave when viewed beneath the shelter of a Groyne is most imposing'. He also said 'of all the works of the Creation none is so imposing as the Ocean; nor does Nature anywhere present a scene that is more exhilarating than a sea-beach'.

    We are grateful to Anne Lyles for her kind assistance with this catalogue entry.

    This picture has been requested as a loan for an exhibition Constable in Brighton, in the Brighton Museum, scheduled for March-October 2017.
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