Andrew McKenzie marvels at a tiny canvas that bears all the hallmarks of the artist's finest work

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, effects that 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 loved.

The view Constable chose to depict – 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 favored 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 beloved 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. Now of uncertain whereabouts, it would have measured approximately 40 by 50 inches, but the composition is known from the mezzotint of the engraver David Lucas and from four other oil sketches made in preparation for the exhibited picture. The first two of these 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 and of the lock gates are also known.

The exciting re-emergence of this magical small canvas must be regarded as the most substantial surviving record of the exhibited work, a painting that, as Robert Hunt described it in his review of the 1813 exhibition, excelled in capturing the "silvery, sparkling... grayish green coloring of our English summer landscapes".

Andrew McKenzie is Director of Old Master Paintings, London.

Sale: Old Master Paintings
Wednesday 8 December at 2pm
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