Perfecting a rainbow: John Constable and David Lucas, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, 1834-7. Part 3 – Catalogue of states (01a-d)

This is the third 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. Following sections giving an introduction and some background and context, here we begin the first section of a catalogue of states:

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

As we saw in the last instalment, David Lucas laid the ground on the plate in the latter part of 1834, and the painting of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was sent round to him on 27 December 1834. He started work immediately for on 19 January 1835 Constable heard from his secretary that Lucas was ‘fast getting on with the Salisbury’.

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

On 30 June Constable wrote to Lucas that he had shown a proof of the plate to his great friend (and later biographer) C R Leslie: ‘Leslie is so much impressed with the proof, that he would give anything to possess one – so am I and would give anything to possess two at least. Now would you mind printing off a few – four or five or six – would it hurt the plate? I know you do not like to do so – but I would gladly pass all experience – it never can or will be grander than it is now. It is, awfully so. You shall be amply paid for the indulgence.’

The earliest known proof is at the British Museum and this is very possibly that with which Constable was so taken.


David Lucas with John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1835
Mezzotint, 610 x 713 mm
British Museum, London

This was catalogued by Shirley as his 39a:

21 ¾ x 27 3/16. Margins not cleaned. L. side behind big tree, black; only the stem of the tree and a few branches outlined. Foreground considerably advanced. L. half of the sky hardly worked on. Before the rainbow. – Brit Mus.’

The BM online catalogue gives:  ‘proof, before rainbow, carved detail on cathedral, upper branches added to big tree to left, of which only the trunk is sketched in. 1837’. The date should better be given as 1835.

It is perhaps surprising that no earlier impression has been noted, for the central and foreground detail is already richly detailed and sophisticated, even down to the swallows swooping over the water. The foreground reeds and grasses are particularly beautiful.

The BM impression is the only impression of this state known to me, but from Constable’s request above it seems likely that a few others must have been printed. Lucas would presumably always have advised against unnecessary printing. Mezzotint was notoriously prone to wear. The plate relief of the mid-tones could be measured in microns, the lighter mid-tones almost in atoms. Even after a few dozen impressions there would be detectable lightening of the half-tones and less velvet in the darks. Longer runs generally required constant reworking to preserve any richness of tone. Constable was right: In those terms ‘it never can or will be grander than it is now’.

On 6 September 1835 Constable wrote to Lucas ‘It is long since I have seen you – many weeks. I am most anxious to see you on all accounts – but I wish to talk to you about the rainbow in the large print. If it is not exquisitely done – if it is not tender, and elegant – evanescent and lovely, the highest degree – we are both ruined. I am led to this having been very busy with rainbows – and very happy in doing them – by the above rules. Would it not be better to leave it wholly to be done when the print is finished – but of this you know best whether it is practicable or not.’

John Constable
Stonehenge, exh RA 1836
Watercolour, 387 × 591 mm
London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1629-1888

Constable’s declaration that he had been very busy with rainbows wants consideration. The only certain candidate is the watercolour of Stonehenge at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836, but a letter to CR Leslie of 14 September 1835 shows that it was finished at that stage.  One watercolour, however, hardly constitutes being ‘busy’ with rainbows. That suggests several works on the go, but there are only two other candidates. One is the painting of Cottage at East Bergholt (Lady Lever AG), but the exact date of that is unknown, and in any case it is one of most vigorously painted canvases in his oeuvre – hardly ‘exquisitely done’. That phrase would much better suit Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow (Tate). From Constable’s reference we might infer that was working on at least one of these, and perhaps both.

John Constable
Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow, exh RA 1836
Oil on canvas, 508 × 762 mm
Tate, London N01275

He concluded his letter to Lucas by repeating his anxiety about the Salisbury, ‘I hope the ‘Rainbow’ is not begun yet.’ Given that the rainbow was an integral part of the paining from which Lucas was working, and the distribution of light and shade entirely dependent upon it, this seems a somewhat strange request. Lucas would thus far have felt obliged to engrave the painting he had been given, and the next known proof shows that he had made excellent progress:


David Lucas with John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1835
Mezzotint, 542 x 686 mm
British Museum, London

This was catalogued by Shirley as his 39b: 21 5/16 x 27 1/16 (clipped impression). The big tree made out, but all to the l. of it black. Detail of carving added on cathedral. The sky a little cleared about the top of the spire, otherwise with little work. The rainbow tentatively begun, but not carried as far as the horizon. – Brit. Mus.

The BM online catalogue gives:  ‘proof, no detail made out to left of big tree to left, before weather-vane added to spire, rainbow sketched in but does not reach horizon. 1837’. This is a comprehensive advance on (a), though it is remarkable how much the big tree to the left is subsequently revised. The British Museum impression appears to be unique.

After that, Lucas does appear to have proceeded cautiously with the rainbow for the next proof shows a very great deal of work on the sky, giving it much more dramatic definition, whilst the bow has been made more glimmering and evanescent.


David Lucas with John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1835
Mezzotint, 616 x 716 mm
British Museum, London

This was catalogued by Shirley as his 39c: 22 x 27 ¼. Bottom margin not clear. Big tree much lighter at top. Light clouds made above it. Wind-vane added to spire, which is now lighter. Sky generally lighter and the clouds better formed in centre. House and trees scraped for 4 ½ inches right of cathedral. Brit. Mus.

The BM online catalogue gives: ‘proof before letters, borders and margins cleared, tree to left lightened at top, houses and trees added for 114mm to right of cathedral. 1837’.

The large tree has been reworked, adding greater definition and variation in the lights together with a much greater suggestion of infinite recession of detail. Similar treatment is given to the whole of the shrubbery on the far bank of the river. A bird is added in the light patch to the left of the large tree – a fleeting appearance as it turns out. Other birds at the top left and right of tree are redefined, and two more are introduced 3-4 cm right of the topmost branch, again a fleeting appearance. The water is lightened to the right of the white horse and the swallow close to white horse’s snout is very much reduced [and subsequently disappears]. This is all part of a general lightening of the whole of the right half of the composition. The leading on the roof of the cathedral is given more definition.

The whole composition has been brought to a high degree of finish except for the left side in which the ground remains completely untouched. This might have been a deliberate stratagem on Lucas’s part. No-one could be in any doubt as to the effectiveness of his hand, or fail to appreciate how far he had infused the plate with life and light from the state of nigredo with which it began.


Shirley’s next state [his 39d] is something of a mystery: ‘21 11/16 x 27 ¼. With border and framing lines added. The l. side now opened up; water, woman l. of post, cow, church tower, &c., added. Sky heavily regrounded in centre and spire darker. The rainbow now double but heavy. Brit. Mus.

Frustratingly, the state that Shirley describes cannot be identified amongst those reproduced by the British Museum. Notes to BM 1848,0212.36 say: ‘This is apparently the print described by Shirley as his Progress Proof 39d, but actually corresponds with his Progress Proof 39f.’ There is no reproduction of this online so the identification remains unverified.

This is frustrating for the print described by Shirley represents the plate’s first fully-worked up condition, the first with the left side fully opened. It was possibly an impression at this stage that Constable had circulated before writing to Lucas on 4 November to say ‘The large Salisbury is thought much of’.

It must be noted, however, that none of the proofs taken in Constable’s lifetime offer any real evidence of the sky being heavily regrounded in the centre, nor of a double rainbow. Shirley’s reference to a ‘woman l. of post’ is even more perplexing. There is no state whatsoever in which a woman appears to the left of a post. It could be a simple left/right transposition, but the woman to the right of the post has been present from the very first.

Into this stage of the plate’s development we may now introduce a list of changes that Constable sent to Lucas. This is the first of several of such lists that involve us in the extremely minute improvements that Constable constantly sought. It is a matter of some surprise that no-one has yet collated these lists into the sequence of states. In this case Beckett [Constable’s Correspondence, vol.IV, p.458, XI (c)] gives only a rough date for the list of late 1836 or early 1837, but that seems too late. All the improvements mentioned in the list postdate state 01c at the British Museum above, but are present in the next known state 01d (i) at the Fogg Art Museum. In fact there must be been at least one intermediary state unexemplified as yet, because there are several major changes in the Fogg impression that are not mentioned in this list.


The Brambles – dark ones by the post – added some lighter

[There are a few lighter strands of bramble stretching from post to right].

Large flags near, more made out & like this proof.

[This is slightly hard to make out, but there is some new detailing added to the leaves behind the dog and towards the lower edge] near the dog kept down.

[The foliage below the dog is slightly subdued in tone]

Top of the post put down – & on the others near the leaf.

Dark posts near the white horse.

Light put in there under the white horse.

[All the posts to the right of the dog are darkened. The line of the riverbank beneath the white horse is considerable lightened].

Post near the old woman inriched.

Post assisted by putting down the bank and heightening the light on side.

[New work on the contrast between the bank and the post. Obvious new highlighting on the right side of the post].

Lightening assisted. Stems of small trees to be put down, to assist it.

[The highlights on the stems of the trees over the north transept are subdued, so as not to detract from the brightness of the lightning. By the time we see it in the next impression, however, Constable has altered the course of the lightning quite significantly].

Rushes under the rail, near the old pollard.

[These do appear eventually, but do not seem to have been implemented straight away].

White horse, dashes under belly – & cloud near town. Specks on tower.

[The water under the horses belly is calmed a little by the next impression, but the rest is not obvious].

Two impressions not mentioned by Shirley document the implementation of this list of changes. The first is a touched proof at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, USA.

01d (i)

David Lucas with John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1835
Mezzotint, image: 55.1 × 68.8 cm, sheet: 61.5 × 76.9 cm
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, Boston, USA (2020.37)

The Harvard Museums online catalogue says that this proof sits between Shirley’s states e and f, but that is incorrect. Shirley’s State (e) is a touched proof at the V&A, but that is, by at least two removes, a later state than this (see below).

This impression, however, is certainly the earliest verifiable state after the left side of the composition was opened up. There are major developments on state (01c).

Click aon any image to open in gallery view. Close gallery to return to this page.

One of the most significant, perhaps, is the change in character of the large tree. This reached a degree of its naturalism in state 01c, but reworking before 01d (i) reduced the sense of infinite recession in the detail of the foliage, and replaced that with a new sense of writhing anxiety in the trunk and branches. This is most clearly seen in the knot of light branches towards the left at a level about half-way up the spire. In state 01c, this reads qute naturalistically; in the Fogg impression it more resembles a knot of serpents.

The most obvious change is the widening of the rainbow. This might well be what Shirley meant by his phrase in describing his state (d) as ‘the rainbow now double’.

Another significant change is in the dog. In the original painting and in states 01a-c its head is turned to the left, towards the woman at the extreme left. Now it faces forward right, directly towards the point that the rainbow meets the ground. This is a slight change, but it completely alters the distribution of attention.

There are numerous other small, but indexical changes. The swallow near the white horse’s snout has disappeared, and the near bank below the horse’s head has been redrawn. The back of the second horse has been lightened and its flank given greater definition. Across the stream the swallows have been redrawn, and a string of cattle has been introduced into the distant meadow.

Beyond that there is significant detail change in the sky. The lightning bolt no long strikes the cathedral as it does in the original painting and in all the previous states. It appears now to strike ground just to the left of the north transept. Besides that, the effect in state 01c of haloing around the cathedral is somewhat reduced, and the clouds above the nave and transept better defined.

On the top of this Constable has indicated further improvements in white. The most obvious proposal is to add light to the dog, and also to lighten its immediate surroundings to make it stand out. This alteration duly appears in the following state. Another proposal suggesting, it seems, the removal of the larger swallow lower left, was not carried into effect.

The plate by this stage offered a splendid translation of the painting. It is striking, therefore, to discover Constable grieving on 16 December 1835 ‘How much I wish for more of the past state of the Salisbury – it is now too late. De Wint wants one, so does Mr Segur’. Constable was harking back to the very early state (see 01a) that he had asked Lucas to print half a dozen of before proceeding. It is one of the strange effects of finishing work that it makes the working process disappear. That was probably the reason that Lucas retained an unworked portion for so long. He knew, as most artists experience, that there is a paradoxical loss in the realisation of potential.

Constable knew equally well that the true goal still lay ahead. At the end of the same letter he looks forward: ‘When will I see another print of the Salisbury? It will far exceed all other mezzotintoes’.

Work continued: On 15 February 1836 he wrote to Lucas ‘The Salisbury is much admired in its present state, but still it is too heavy, especially when seen between ‘The Lock’ and ‘The Drinking Boy’. Yet we must not break it up, and we must bear in recollection that the sentiment of the picture is that of solemnity, not gaiety – nothing garish, but on the contrary – yet it must be bright, clear, alive, fresh, and all the front seen.

The two plates of The Lock and The Drinking Boy that Constable mentions were Lucas’s previous two large Constable plates, that had been issued by Moon & Co to great acclaim at just about the time that work on the Salisbury got underway. Those had created something of a stir, and Constable urged Lucas to think of the Salisbury as the coup capitalising on the blow struck by the earlier plates.

The implication of Constable’s comments is that the Salisbury, which certainly started as a dark and brooding image, still carried too much of its original gravity, and wanted lightening a little, whilst still retaining its seriousness. The next states certainly show Lucas working to realise more sparkle.

01d (ii)

David Lucas with John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1835
Mezzotint, sheet size 615 x 717 mm
Christie’s 25 February 2009, lot 1139.
David Lucas (1802-1881), after John Constable, R.A. (

The main alteration is the lighter background to the dog, and additional lights to the dog itself, particularly to its chest, leg and tail. The contrast between the leading horse and its background has been increased, and the grasses below its head on the near bank have grown a little. There is a new growth of grasses in the lower right corner, and the sky appears to have gained greater definition by deepening the darks. That may however, be simply an effect of the extremely fine condition of this impression, in comparison to the rather brown impression [at least in the online image] at the Fogg. In any case Lucas might reasonably have thought that the plate was now ready for publication, and that it was bound to impress as one of the best and most ambitious landscapes ever created in mezzotint.

Between 15 February 1836 and 1 October 1836 there is a gap in the correspondence between Lucas and Constable. The artist continued to circulate proofs and the matter of how to actually publish and distribute the finished print came to the fore. Constable had an extremely poor opinion of publishers – “What are you doing with the villainous trade?” – he asked in the letter of 1 October. R B Beckett in his commentary to the letters found that Constable made a payment of £50 to Lucas on account of his work on the Salisbury and was thus in effect its proprietor (at least in part – an experienced engraver would have expected to earn at least twice that from a plate such as this). His fear of being drawn into the mire of publishing explains his comment ‘I should like to decline my fifty pounds’ worth – and thus becoming one of them’. He even went so far as to suggest that Lucas might publish it himself: ‘You could I am sure do well with the plate. You had better rob yourself, wife & children, than let “the trade” do it to all.’

He finished by saying ‘Many are anxious to see this plate of Salisbury – one spoke of Moon’s having spit on it!’ Sir Francis Moon was the leading publisher of art prints in London at the time and had enjoyed considerable success with Lucas’s previous two large Constable plates, The Lock and The Cornfield, published in 1835. Constable seems to have felt that Moon had robbed him over these, however, and the artist took comfort from the publisher’s obvious jealousy at something that he would not be given.

If Lucas hoped at this stage that all that remained for Salisbury was to arrange fair terms for publication, he greatly underestimated the length of the final lap. Sight of the finishing line provoked a whole new lease of procrastination from Constable.

Next: Further impressions taken before the addition of the title and first publication line, states 01e-f

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