Perfecting a rainbow: John Constable and David Lucas, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, 1834-7. Part #1 Introduction

Dedicated readers will remember that in 2018 we mused over various states of John Constable’s print of ‘A Summerland’. Here we apply the magnifying glass to his ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’. This was the last, largest and most ambitious mezzotint completed under the artist’s direct supervision. Work began on the plate in 1834 and Constable was still engaged with it at his death three years later.

David Lucas with John Constable
The Rainbow: Salisbury Cathedral, 1837
Mezzotint printed in black ink on heavyweight wove paper
Image, 556 x 692 mm, within border line visible in places at the edge of the image, together with a keyline at 3mm all round, on plate 618 x 717 mm, printed in black ink on heavyweight, slightly textured, Whatman type, wove paper.
Private Collection
Photograph by Professor Emeritus David Hill

No detail was too incidental not to be improved, nor deadline too pressing to prevent prevarication. His interventions reached a crescendo in relation to the rainbow. No artist ever fretted more over nuances in an engraving nor sought such subtlety of detail. Following the trail through his revisions will require concentration and perhaps more stamina than today’s viewers are generally prepared to give. The reward, however is to enter into the artist’s sense of the sublime, and to witness his attempt to instil that in the engraving.  

John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1829- exh RA 1831
Oil on canvas, 1537 × 1920 mm
Tate Britain, London (T13896)
Image courtesy of Tate

The composition is derived from one of Constable’s most important paintings, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1829-31 (Tate). The subject was of personal importance to Constable, and the culmination of his association with Salisbury. Briefly, Constable began the painting whilst staying with Archdeacon John Fisher at Salisbury in 1829. His world had been cast under a cloud a few months earlier by the death of his wife. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 and scholars now believe that the exhibited painting lacked the rainbow. That was added after Fisher’s death on 25 August 1832. Fisher lived at Leaden Hall which stands near the foot of the rainbow and it has even been suggested (see Thornes 2017, below) that the rainbow is specific to the day of Fisher’s death.

The composition has been the subject of extensive commentary; among the most significant recent contributions are:

Timothy Wilcox, Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape, Scala Press, 2011

Anne Lyles, ‘Sublime Nature: John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication, January 2013, .uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/anne-lyles-sublime-nature-john-constables-salisbury-cathedral-fromthe-meadows-r1129550, accessed 30 October 2022

Amy Concannon, ‘The Painting’, in Amy Concannon (ed.), In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, Tate Research Publication, 2017,, accessed 21 July 2019.

John E. Thornes, ‘A Reassessment of the Solar Geometry of Constable’s Salisbury Rainbow’, in Amy Concannon (ed.), In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, Tate Research Publication, 2017,, accessed 21 July 2019

Constable was a prolific letter-writer and the development of the plate is extensively documented in the correspondence between the artist and his engraver David Lucas. The bulk of these letters are kept at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and the standard treatment of Constable’s association with David Lucas is

Hon. Andrew Shirley, The Published Mezzotints of David Lucas after John Constable RA, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1930.

Shirley transcribes the core documentation for this project from Constable’s correspondence with David Lucas. This is significantly expanded and contextualised in

R B Beckett, John Constable’s Correspondence, (Suffolk Records Society, 6 vols., 1962-68) where Lucas’s exchanges with Constable are collected in volume IV.

The letters document that Lucas laid the ground on the plate late in 1834 and that Constable was suggesting improvements right up to his death on 31 March 1837. The correspondence also shows that Constable distributed proofs as gifts, and the fact that he was still correcting proofs shows that it had not been properly editioned by his death, even though the plate had been inscribed with the publication date of 20 March 1837. Lucas wrote on 8 September 1846 that Constable’s death had forestalled publication. At the time of his writing the plate was still in the possession of the Constable family, but Lucas remarked that it would probably soon be published.

This plate is the last work that Constable is known to have touched, and it is also the largest and most ambitious plate that Constable and Lucas produced together. It represents the absolute pinnacle of everything they achieved together in the medium of mezzotint, so it is somewhat surprising that Shirley’s account of its genesis remains unrevised.  Still less has anyone undertaken any account that attempts to integrate the identifiable states with the documentation in the letters.

Shirley lists six states of progress proof (a-f) together with two published states (P and II). His key series of proofs consists of four impressions at the British Museum [a-d] together with a touched proof at the V&A (e) and a final state before letters then in a private collection (f). We can here significantly augment that list.

Crucially, however, Shirley was not aware of the letter written in 1846 by David Lucas relating that the plate was not actually editioned on the 20 March 1837 even though it was inscribed to that effect.  Shirley’s list of published states, therefore, requires complete revision. The plate was in fact first published by E Gambart & Co in 1848. As we shall see, even after it was inscribed with the publication date of 20 March 1837 the plate underwent numerous revisions before its eventual publication by Gambart, and all impressions prior to the 1848 edition must now be categorised as proofs before publication. To all that we can now also add an entirely separate edition issued in 1896.

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