Perfecting a rainbow: John Constable and David Lucas, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, 1834-7. Part 2 – Beginnings

This is the second part of an examination of the various states of Constable’s mezzotint of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. This was engraved by David Lucas under the artist’s close supervision and instruction between late 1834 and Constable’s death on 31 March 1837. Here we explore the context and background to the project up to the point that Lucas laid down the groundwork on the plate.

The first reference to the project is in a letter from Constable to Lucas of 11 December 1834. We will hear more of this shortly but for present purposes it documents that arrangements were already in place for Lucas to begin work on Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. Circumstances, however, conspired to put the project on hold: Constable says that ‘The large Salisbury of course you will not receive – it would only be in your way’.

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 painting had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831. It may be numbered amongst the most important of all Constable’s works. It was conceived at the Salisbury home of one of his closest friends, Archdeacon John Fisher and intended as the definitive statement of his artistic maturity. Its inception was freighted with feeling attached to the recent death of his wife, and the layers of emotion were further deepened following the death of Fisher in the summer of 1832.

Click on either image to open full-size in gallery view. Close gallery to return to this page.

In the same year that the painting was conceived, Constable began his working relationship with David Lucas. The widower artist was approaching the peak of his career, elected Royal Academician in February 1829 at the age of fifty-two, and the engraver was in the first year of his independent career at the age of twenty-seven.

Sotheby’s 19 July 2022, lot 164

Together they worked on a series of mezzotint engravings under the title of ‘Various Subjects of Landscape, characteristic of English Scenery’. A retrospective selection of oil sketches and paintings was engraved between 1829 and 1832 and twenty-two plates published in parts. Several other subjects were worked up but not included in the final selection. After a little revision a definitive [so-called ‘second edition’] set of twenty-two was published in 1833.

We studied one of those plates, ‘Summerland’ in detail in 2018 and it is obvious how completely invested was Constable in the project. Through Lucas, the artist sought to wrangle out of the plate an image whose handling was instinct with his own distinct character and he unstintingly coached the engraver into achieving it. Though he eventually came to despair of the public’s ability to appreciate the quality of their joint achievement, he was artistically proud of the results and looked to follow their collaborative aesthetic success [if not commercial] with a series of plates on a larger scale.

Click on either image to open full-size in gallery view. Close gallery to return to this page.

In 1832 Lucas began work to engrave two upright Constable paintings, The Lock and The Cornfield. Constable worked as attentively as ever to perfect the quality of the plates and Lucas managed to place them for publication with Moon & Co, the leading London printsellers. They were printed and issued on 1 July 1834 to great acclaim and commercial success. For the pains he took with them, Constable, seems to have got little if anything out of the arrangements with Moon, and began to worry that his aesthetic relation with Lucas was being corrupted by commercial involvement.

David Lucas after Cohn Constable
Stratford Mill (sometimes called ‘The Young Waltonians’, begun 1834, but not published until 1840
Final state before publilcation
Image courtesy of Gerrish Fine Art
Stratford Mill (Young Waltonians) – Gerrish Fine Art

Matters came to a head in December 1834 when he heard that Lucas was to be commissioned to engrave a centrepiece to the two uprights of The Lock and The Cornfield. Constable was outraged to learn that this was to be after a painting by another artist altogether. Furthermore, the plate of another Constable painting of Stratford Mill which Lucas was just starting was to be made a companion to a piece by someone else. Constable obviously felt that the quality of Lucas’s work that derived from their mutual partnership was being prosituted by the publishers. He determined to scupper any further trade in his work with Moon & Co, and demanded that Lucas return Stratford Mill. He almost immediately regretted his decision and their subsequent exchanges offer terrific evidence of how much importance Constable attached to what Lucas had achieved in association with him, and clear evidence of his sense that their partnership was unique and ought to remain so.

‘take care lest it [a love of money] lead you to abandon that independency of spirit, those habits of pains taking, to which I once so much delighted to administer all the encouragement in my power, in all ways – this made you an artist, and from this emanated your two most beautiful prints [The Lock and The Cornfield]

I now offer this (perhaps) my last advice – that you study to preserve the moral feeling in art – it can have no better name

The great quality of mezzotint in Lucas’s hands was that it directly transmitted the vigour, energy and feeling of Constable’s handling. It could also suggest, as did Constable’s paintwork, an infinite recession of detail, as if the medium was actually enacting the event it depicted, and that the artist acted as an amanuensis through which those events made themselves manifest. Lucas offered Constable an exclusive voice in print and the artist promptly attempted to ameliorate the situation:

I know you have nobly refused all requests so unfair – so ungenerous – so perfidious. I was alarmed – and my behaviour & conduct was wholly directed by that alarm, taken in a moment of surprise as I was. ‘Tis my style, and your admirable mode of rendering that style, of which I am so watchfull & jealous. Of this perhaps I have now said enough.’

Perhaps too much. If Lucas had been half as temperamental as Constable he would have raised some objection to this, but he let it go. Perhaps he recognised the justice in the artist’s claim. The outstanding aesthetic character of these mezzotints was indeed due entirely to Constable’s style and the vitality of its realisation in the plates was entirely dependent on Constable’s direct involvement in the expression of every last detail.

On 20 December 1834 we learn that Lucas had sometime previously laid down the ground on a large plate in preparation for engraving the painting of Salisbury Cathedral. Laying a ground for a mezzotint was a laborious and highly skilled process, requiring the engraver to work over the plate several times with a rocker to lay down a fine and even screen of indentations. The process was especially hard when working as was Lucas on the relatively new material of steel. The surface was much harder and more resistant than the traditional material of copper. A plate of this size must have been an uncommonly arduous undertaking.

Constable was worried that Lucas might have decided to use the plate for some other artist’s commission. He asked ‘if you had appropriated the ground laid for the large Salisbury to any other purpose, which you did not answer. If you were afraid of the whole risk I would relieve you – I would at least advance money all the time, and do my share if required in any other way, most satisfactory to your own peace of mind. I shall most sincerely grieve for both our sakes if you have relinquished the ground, on which you have so nobly taken your position’.

This is doubly interesting, for it suggests that the initial idea was for Lucas to undertake the engraving speculatively. This would have left his efforts significantly exposed to failure and the artist realised that he would have to mitigate Lucas’s risk.  Constable’s phrase ‘nobly taken your position’ suggests that he recognised that even in laying down the ground Lucas had already made a major investment on his behalf.

Publication line very faint. Please right click image to open full-size in a new tab. Close tabe to return to this page

We may now turn to compiling a catalogue of the various states through which the plate passed. Future instalments will arrange the states according to the following numeration:

01 Impressions taken before the addition of the title and first publication line.

02 Impressions with title and first publication line of 20 March 1837, taken under Constable’s supervision

03 Posthumous proofs prior to the edition of 1848

04 The Gambart edition of 1848 [the only properly published state of the original plate]

05 A completely new engraving of 1896.

None of the states exist in large number. Examples of one state or another have been reproduced as they have appeared on the market at intervals over the last thirty years but it is surprising how varied those examples have been. The list of states and examples that follows is as comprehensive as I can make it, but it is unlikely to prove definitive. As new states emerge I will endeavour to add them, and hopefully collectors and curators will be able to place their impressions into this sequence. I would be glad to hear of any states that amplify the series.


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