John Constable – The Salisbury Cathedral

The picture of Salisbury Cathedral, from the Bishop’s Garden, No. 33 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was begun in the earlier part of 1822. It was a commission from the Bishop, and was exhibited in the following spring. Dr. Fisher also ordered a smaller version in the same year as a wedding present for his daughter, and expressed a wish that it might have “a more serene sky.” In May, 1823, after the opening of the Exhibition, Constable wrote to the Arch-deacon: “My Cathedral looks uncommonly well; it is much, approved by the Academy.

I think you will say when you see it that I have fought a better battle with the Church than old Henry Brougham and all their coadjutors put together. It was the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had on my easel. I have not flinched at the windows, buttresses, etc., but I have still kept my grand organ colour, and have, as usual, made my escape in the chiaroscuro… . Calcott admires my Cathedral; he says I have managed it well.” In June, 1824, the Bishop sent it back for some alterations which he thought would improve it.

The various pictures he painted of this subject are a little confusing. We find him writing in November, 1825: “I have nearly completed a second Cathedral, and I think you will perhaps prefer it to the first, but I will send it to Salisbury for your inspection;” and a few days later he adds : ” My new picture of Salisbury is very beautiful, and I have repainted entirely that belonging to Mr. Mirehouse. . . . These pictures of the Cathedral have caused me of late to be almost abiding with you.” In the journal he kept for his wife he noted, at the same date, ” Painted all day at Mr. Mirehouse’s little picture of The Cathedral, making in all three ‘Cathedrums’ as pretty Minna (his eldest daughter) calls them.” In July of 1826, Fisher writes to him: “The Cathedral looks splendidly over the chimney piece. The picture requires a room full of light. Its internal splendour comes out in all its power, and the spire sails away with the thunder clouds.”

“In the foreground,” says Leslie, ” he introduced a circumstance familiar to all who are in the habit of noticing cattle. With cows there is generally, if not always, one which is called, not very accurately, the master cow, and there is scarcely anything the rest of the herd will venture to do until the master has taken the lead. On the left of the picture this individual is drinking, and turns with surprise and jealousy to another cow approaching the canal lower down for the same purpose. They are of the Suffolk breed, without horns; and it is a curious mark of Con-stable’s fondness for everything connected with his native county, that scarcely an instance can be found of a cow in any of his pictures, be the scene where it may, with horns.”

In the management of the two fine elm trees in the foreground, which form an arched frame for the soaring spire of the Cathedral, the artist probably departed from exact topographical truth in order to obtain an effective and decorative composition, as in the small pencil study, also at South Kensington, No. 292, the tree on the right is absent. The magnificent building, as seen between this framework of living green, and across the flat sunny meadows, stands out with almost startling effect against the white, gray, and blue of the stormy sky. Constable has certainly striven hard for architectural exactitude in the painting of all the details, and with a great measure of success, though he seems to have found the unusual task a difficult one. The rigid architectural lines of the building necessitated a formality of treatment to which he was unaccustomed, while his passion for chiaroscuro could not come into full play. In this picture ” for this first time we notice,” says Mr Holmes, ” that tendency to paint glittering sunlight by spots and scumbles of pure bright pigment which is characteristic of Constable’s later manner. He had for some years practised this method in his sketches, but the “Salisbury” is the first instance where it is used extensively in a large finished picture.” In spite of this new searching after ” sparkle,” the trees have been studied with something of the patient detail of a Dutchman. The prevailing colouring of the composition is, of course, green, amid which the tender brown-gray of the old stone walls of the cathedral, bathed in sunlight, makes a most harmonious contrast. This picture should be compared with the famous ” Rainbow” Salisbury, belonging to Mrs. Ashton, painted in 1831, and with the brilliantly impressionistic sketch, a nearer view from the Bishop’s grounds, in the possession of Mr. George Salting.