John Constable RA
Willy Lotts House
Oil on canvas
13 ¼ x 16 ¾ inches; 337 x 426 mm
Painted in the summer of 1802
This important early painting was executed at a turning point in Constable’s career as well as being the first known depiction of what was to become one of his most famous subjects. In 1802 Constable had been offered the post as drawing master at the Military College at Great Marlow, but declined it on the advice of Joseph Farington and Benjamin West who advised him that it would interfere with his developing career as a painter. The acceptance, for the first time after earlier attempts, of one of his pictures at the Royal Academy possibly encouraged him in this decision.
The present picture, painted ‘from nature’ belongs to a very small group of carefully observed and painted small works, made soon after a famous letter, almost a manifesto for his career, to John Dunthorne in which Constable expressed his dissatisfaction with the course that his painting had taken and his resolve to work in future from nature: ‘For these few weeks past I believe I have thought more seriously on my profession than at any other time of my life – that is, which is the shurest way to real excellence. And this morning I am the more inclined to mention the subject having just returned from a visit to Sir G[eorge] Beaumont’s pictures. – I am returned with a deep conviction of the truth of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s observation that “there is no easy way of becoming a good painter.” It can only be obtained by long contemplation and incessant labour in the executive part… For these two years past I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth at second hand… I am come to a determination to make no idle visits this summer or to give up my time to common place people. I shall shortly return to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious studies from nature – and I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected representation of the scenes that may employ me with respect to colour particularly and anything else – drawing I am pretty well master of. There is little or nothing in the exhibition worth looking up to – there is room enough for a natural painture’ (John Constable to John Dunthorne, 29 May 1802).
Seven small landscape painting are known to survive as a result of Constable’s determined painting campaign made in the summer of 1802 as a result of his ‘Damascene’ visit to view Beaumont’s collection, four of which are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, with a further two in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven. The seventh, the painting under discussion, is one of the most significant and beautiful of the group. The six landscapes in public collections depict views in and around Dedham Vale or the environs of East Bergholt, however, the present view of The River Stour and Willy Lott’s house is unique in recording a location close to the Constable family mill at Flatford. It was these subjects that Constable was to return to throughout his career and provided the inspiration for his great ‘six-footers’. The most famous of this series of seven paintings is the upright view of Dedham Vale (Victoria & Albert Museum) which was greatly influenced by the small painting by Claude of Hagar and the Angel which was then in George Beaumont’s collection and which had been earlier copied by Constable. This canvas is not only the first of Constable’s paintings of the area around Flatford Mill, but the first depiction of Willy Lott’s house which was to form such an important element in some of his most significant works.
With his declaration to Dunthorne that he intended to make some ‘laborious studies from nature’ Constable seems to have meant that he intended to take substantial time and care in their execution and this is borne out by the seven paintings forming this group which are much more elaborate in their execution than the plein air studies that we normally associate with his work. Indeed, technical analysis has demonstrated that this series of paintings were very substantially executed on the spot en plein air and only ‘finished’ in the studio. The use of the warm coloured red/brown ground, left substantially unpainted underlines the influence of the magnificent group of Seventeenth century Dutch landscapes in Sir George Beaumont’s collection.
This particular painting is a wonderfully and, unusually for Constable at this stage, successfully and fully resolved landscape. Relying on careful and patient observation and analysis of the landscape, Constable was able to call up all his technical resources to record not only the structure and content of the scene before him but the ‘sense of place’ that was to become so central to Constable’s art. It has recently been argued that the present painting of Willy Lott’s House is, after the Dedham Vale, the most beautiful and significant of this seminal series of small canvases. Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn have recently opined that ‘the fine aesthetic qualities of Willy Lott’s House and its undoubted importance in relation to subject-matter, have surely been underestimated to date, perhaps because – unlike the other six studies in the series – it has remained in a private collection.’ In this small canvas, amongst the first of Constable’s small scale masterpieces, we see him looking back and resolving his debt to Claude, the Dutch masters and his fellow East Anglian, Gainsborough, whilst forging a new language that in the early years of the nineteenth century was to alter perception to landscape and landscape art.
Willy Lott’s house at Flatford is seen from the south bank of the River Stour, with the thickly wooded island which separated the mill stream from the river forming the central feature. The extreme left portion of this study from nature showing the house was the germ a recurrent motif throughout his art culminating in the famous Valley Farm of 1836 (Tate Britain).
Sir William Drake, 1891;
George Salting, by 1900;
Katherine, Lady Binning, daughter of the above;
John Baillie-Hamilton, Lord Binning, son of the above, 1992;
Private collection, 2008
Probably, London, Royal Academy, 1803, no 59 or 694, as
‘A study from nature’;
London, The Tate Gallery, Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, 1976, no. 35
Charles Rhyne, ‘Fresh Light on John Constable’, Apollo, vol. LXXXVII, March 1968, p. 230,
Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-Williams & Conal Shields, Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, 1976, Exhibition catalogue,
Robert Hoozee, L’opera completa di Constable, 1979, no. 22;
Hugh Belsey (et al), From Gainsborough to Constable: the emergence of Naturalism in British Landscape Painting 1750-1810, 1991, p. 80;
Graham Reynolds, The early paintings and drawings of John Constable, 1996, no. 02.13, reproduced, pl. 166