Perfecting a rainbow: John Constable and David Lucas, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, 1834-7. Part 5 – Catalogue of states (01f)

This is the fifth 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 supervision and instruction between late 1834 and Constable’s death on 31 March 1837. Here we complete the first section of a catalogue of states:

Impressions taken before the addition of title and first publication line (concluded)

We closed the previous part of this catalogue with a progress proof at the Art Institute of Chicago, USA [01e (ii)]. With that, Constable at last appears to have been approaching satisfaction with the plate. An undated letter given by R.B.Beckett’s edition of John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. IV p.430 documents a few further changes. In order to see these implemented we have to reach a little ahead of ourselves to a lettered and titled impression at the Royal Academy (02a). This will be considered in its proper place in the next part, but is worth reproducing here to illustrate the changes being suggested at this stage.

I have worked on the proof a little, as thus-

1. The end of the rail of the bridge, sharpened off the water near the swallow

The left end of the bridge rail gains sharper definition and contrast against the water behind.

The dog, is a little more cleaned off the ground & distinct – & a thinner dog, & longer legs.

Constable seems to mean by this that the dog’s stance is made a little clearer, and its legs gain a little more definition. The major change, however is to the tail, which is not mentioned here and might already have been attended to.

The bit of lightning, which we were doubtful about last night, I took away- for the better.

This is diagnostic of this stage in the sequence. The Chicago proof shows twin tracks to the lightning bolt in two places. Both are resolved in the RA impression, and some additional highlights added at the head.

The foreground about the posts and the old woman is cleared up a bit. So is the rainbow.

And you saw all the rest.

Lucas lightens the ground below the left-hand post, but this is retracted in later states. The rainbow, however, was set to receive rather more through attention than just being ‘cleared up a bit’.

There must have been at least one proof taken before the title and publication line was added. I have not yet verified any example, but there is one impression at the British Museum that might well take its place in this part of the sequence.

01 f

 [Shirley 39f]: ‘Same size, Lettering deleted. Rainbow wider in section: it is now returned in top l. corner. Before the sky lighter along the top margin, r. of rainbow. Before letters. – Fletcher ex C.R.Leslie.

It is not clear where the impression cited by Shirley now is, but the online catalogue entry for British Museum BM 1848,0212.36 says ‘This is apparently the print described by Shirley as his Progress Proof 39d, but actually corresponds with his Progress Proof 39f’ and ‘proof after scratched artists’ names deleted, etching and birds added to left side, rainbow returned upper left. 1837.’ 

There is no reproduction of this online so its position in the sequence remains to be verified. I am hoping to examine this in the near future.

Constable was now positively proud of what had been achieved. The same letter also makes plain that the artist was now so involved with the plate that he had offered to buy out Lucas and take sole ownership.

That is all and pray do all – & then the print will be without a companion in the world. Pray keep this touched proof for me, and I send it carefully, that it may be safe from dirt & rubbing. You can if you please keep the portfolio ‘till its return – & do not take off the slip of wood.

Thinking as I do of this work, and the love one feels for ‘one’s own’, made me wish to possess it – but I am glad you did not accept my offer, as it is no business of mine – & no doubt ‘the trade’ would have hindered the sale of the plate in my hands – & they always combine.

I am glad however to find that offer exceeded what you proposed to get from the trade, for I should even after all my pains (& no copyright demanded on my part) – I should have been ashamed to have offered you less than you asked them, which, when their horrid system of bills is considered & the still further horrid system of discounting the same, is considered, my offer would have far exceeded the amount. So that doubtless you had other reasons, of which I can know nothing, nor do I wish to know them, and perhaps you are right. I am fast becoming an old friend – new ones are most likely to bring temporary benefit, & you are young and have children, and you must keep friends with the trade – but remember on them you cannot encroach, if ever you should so far forget yourself as to attempt it.

I think dear Lucas the proof is now every thing we could wish… I shall frame it as soon as you have done with it – do take care not to dirty it. What an awkward strainer it is upon.

It appears from this that Lucas had discussed arrangements for publication by the trade, and perhaps already agreed a fee. It is interesting, and perhaps not a little remarkable, that Constable seems to have earned nothing from it ‘even after all my pains’. The next letter dated 9 December 1836 (Beckett p.431) shows that Constable was by no means deterred from taking further pains.

Dear Lucas,

I hope you agree with me that the last proof I sent you is most effective. You do not say how far you agreed with or how far you liked it – pray do not do anything against your own judgement or opinion…

Perhaps you will get the plate to another proof before you see me – I am anxious what you think of the flash of lightning over the north transept near the trees, being made of more account. It looks grand, & glooms the rest, of the dell &c.

Lucas now went quiet for a while. He had more pressing matters to deal with: His wife was in the final days of confinement. Constable’s thoughts were focused entirely on the plate. On 31 December he wrote:

Dear Lucas

I send Joseph as my mind is so anxious about the present proof that it rather disturbs my nights – tell me if anything has occurred amiss. I hope Mrs Lucas is doing well, and has done well.

The sky sadly disturbed me. Why I should have made a change I known not – still I cannot say anything like it was so made in the touched proof – but, do not mind – only if you have anything to say or send, do. I hope to hear good accounts of Mrs. Lucas.

Half an inch (which the plate would give) would much improve the sky at the top – & make the plate a nearer match to the two uprights [i.e The Lock and The Cornfield.]

I worry about this plate a good deal – & if I do, what must be your case with it…

[PS] Perhaps I must wait till another year now before I see it completed. Next year I may see a proof – but not this year, I suppose.

Despite the fact that Mrs Lucas appears to have been in labour, Lucas sent a proof by immediate return. So critical were matters with Mrs Lucas that the engraver could not leave the house, and was forced to beg some emergency funds from Constable.

Dear Sir [wrote Lucas]

I should have brought you a proof before this time had not peculiar circumstances prevented me. Indeed just as Joseph called [Constable’s man] I had prepared to leave home for your house – but am unable to do so, as Mrs Lucas is suddenly worse and begs I will not leave home before morning. I think it very likely I may have an addition to my family…

Will you allow me to ask for the loan of two pounds. I will return it by the end of the week. I have no means of obtaining this sum unless I leave home which I should be sorry at this time to do.

Lucas possibly needed money in case he needed to pay a midwife or a doctor. It is amazing that he could find time at all for Constable’s artistic concerns, but proofs were returned the same day so that an hour and a quarter before midnight Constable could reply:

Dear Lucas

Accept my thanks for the proofs. I have not time (so late) to say much, but what I see of it is delightfull…

We must get tone, & depth, & force, back again to the large trees in the distance – those on the left of the poplar, at the bottom of the gardens. The reflection of the white horse is beautiful & true. Some of the spots on the brambles near the post may be toned down – but all these things are the job of an hour, while I am with you, & which we can talk about when we meet.

God preserve your excellent wife, and give her a happy hour – ‘

The trees are darkened between the Chicago proof and that at the RA. It is also evident that in the interim Constable made several alterations to the sky and the rainbow. A full consideration of all the new features of the Royal Academy impression will be given in the next instalment, but the correspondence suggests that there might well have been several proofs taken between those at Chicago and the Royal Academy. Hopefully in time the present sequence will be amplified.

For now, however, the most important unresolved matter remains the outcome of Mrs Lucas’s confinement, on which both the correspondence, and Beckett’s commentary is frustratingly silent. Happily, a Lucas family history site tells us that she was delivered of a daughter, Charlotte.

On 19 January 1837 Constable wrote to say that he had been marking up another bunch of changes on a proof, and changing his mind about some of them. It seems plain that it he was mostly tinkering, but he did retain substantive concerns over the sky and rainbow.

Dear Lucas

I send the proof you sent in a frame. I have wiped a good deal of it off – leaving it about the about the arse end of the waggon, the bushes about the necessary, the water trickling after the waggon, and on the post & another tree stem &c &c.

It is interesting that Constable reprises the Rabelaisian aspect of the composition (see Part 4), and this time calls the ‘shitten house’ ‘the necessary’, as it happens my grandmother also called it.

In short there is no necessity even to touch another proof. We can always find as much as ever we want in this. As to the sky, let it all alone at present, except clearing the light away from the lightning. Never mind the birds, except the one between the spire & the bow.

We may infer that Constable had added a few more birds to the sky. That between the spire and the bow does appear in the RA proof, together with three others towards the right. Their appearance is a major diagnostic of the final changes before the lettering, but it would be interesting to be able to chart more exactly the sequence of their appearance.

I have cleared the whole of the bow & in certain light it is quite right & had better be done – & as it forms the subject of the picture, must be clear, & tender, though conspicuous.

Clearly important work was going on with the rainbow, and Constable was finessing it to deliver exactly the right emotional qualities. The key change in the sequence is that between the Chicago and RA proofs the bow was returned at the top left. It is a little frustrating that the comments here are not specific about that aspect.

I have wiped almost all the work off the foreground. In fact dear Lucas, a great deal or most of what you see must be done in some way or other, so that it looks a great deal so so. We are on the very eve of every thing that is fine and impressive (we must not mind ignorant sellers of these things though they may be right in their way).

Lucas was obviously flagging. It is a wonder that he hadn’t imploded months earlier. By implication he had already shown the publishers thought it perfectly ready to present to the public. Constable held a dim view of the powers of discrimination of both.

And now a few days will do all I want & wish for – do let me hope for it & look for it also. You can never see your time again – nor me my money – but still we are in the same boat. But I allow, mine is not without possibility of safety – you are without it so far – but I shall be delighted to see it launched, I will always come.

Flagging financially, as well as emotionally, it seems.

We must keep this proof as a criterion and get as much of it as we can. The bow is a grand whole – provided it is clean and tender. The water under the dark horses must come to this, & to look as it does after the waggon, & hind wheel.

Perhaps Constable’s comment on the bow indicates that he had proposed its return at the top left – to make ‘a grand whole’, but this is uncertain. His comment on the qualities of ‘clean and tender’ that he wanted is striking. He knew from mistakes made in the recent past that any effect could so easily become corrupt. This occurred more than once in the plate of The Summerland that we examined in 2018.

How I wish I could scratch & tear away at it with your tools on the steel … – but we must do it, & your quiet way is, I well know, the best and only way.

The last comment is worth dwelling upon. It suggests that Constable saw himself as working through Lucas as his amanuensis. Through the engraver, Constable was actively painting on the plate, although in this case he was clearly close to having worn out his brush.

Constable finished the letter with two postscripts:

The rainbow must be connected – whole & compact – but tender, not stringy – but I must see you do it perhaps.

Constable’s work with the rainbow seems to have been mostly about its ethereality and its consistency, as well as the purity of its representation. All of this suggests that there might have been several states between those at Chicago and the Royal Academy.

I send a ‘drop’ to cheer up the next proof – but I never will touch another, only look at it and compare with this.

It is to be hoped that the drop was a quality spirit. Lucas must have felt it was the least he deserved. One wonders how much faith he can have put in Constable’s closing promise.

Next: States with first publication line and title

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