Text by Geoffrey Smith
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In November1828 Constable’s beloved wife Maria died. Theirs had been a difficult courtship — for many years the disapproval of her parents had precluded any meaningful relationship; they were reduced to clandestine meetings, filling in the gaps as best they could with correspondence. The death of Constable’s father in 1816 resulted in a financial settlement which enabled him, in the face of continued displeasure from her family, to marry Maria. However, their long delayed happiness was soon marred by the onset of tuberculosis, the scourge familiar to so many nineteenth-century families. They moved from London to the nearby airy village of Hampstead in an effort to stave off the inevitable decline in her health but just twelve years after their marriage she succumbed leaving John with seven children.
Constable was devastated and never really recovered from his grief. His belated election as a Royal Academician a few months later, after many rebuffs, only seems to have served to heighten his loss. However at about this time he wrote to his great friend John Fisher that despite his depression ‘could I get afloat on a canvas of six feet, I might have a chance of being carried away from myself’. And it seems that something like this happened because a few months later he submitted Hadleigh Castle to the Academy.
Constable was unique (for his generation and earlier) in often producing full-size oil paintings executed on the spot, some of which were sketches, some more ‘finished’ ready for the Academy. He painted two versions of Hadleigh Castle; the picture shown at the Academy is now at the Yale Center for British Art in the United States. The Tate version is stunningly expressionistic — thick, unmixed paint is applied to the canvas in a frenzy of daubs and dashes which animate the surface with a restless energy. These patches of colour coalesce to give a palpable sense of shifting light as clouds race over the windswept estuary and heath. Constable’s mood imbues the exposed estuarine landscape with a dark bleakness — the shepherd and his dog seem to be subsumed in the enveloping loneliness of the scene, a loneliness which of course mirrors the painter’s despair at the loss of his wife.
Constable’s deeply held conservative beliefs in the virtues of the twin pillars of Parliament and the Church as the immutable bastions of British society found expression in such paintings as the Hay Wain through their depiction of the order and peace of the English countryside. But there is very little peace to be found in this picture — the bluish palette increases the cold and desolate feel and the ruined castle echoes the destruction of his own happiness.
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1826 Thomas Cole: Daniel Boone and his Cabin at Great Ossage Lake; Amhurst, MA, Mead Art Museum
1826 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: The Forum seen from the Farnese Gardens; Paris, Musée du Louvre
1828 J.M.W. Turner: Petworth Park: Tillington Church in the Distance, London Tate Britain