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'Cottage at East Bergholt' c 1836, by John Constable (1776 - 1837)


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About the artwork

Constable was born in the village of East Bergholt, Suffolk in 1776 to Golding Constable, a prosperous coal and corn merchant and mill-owner. After Constable had spent only a year in the family business, the artist and antiquary J T Smith managed to persuade Constable's father to permit his son to follow an artistic career, and Constable joined the Royal Academy schools in 1799. However, unlike the images of French, Swiss and Italian landscapes that were being produced by his contemporaries such as J M W Turner, it was the rustic landscape of his birthplace that was to inspire and occupy Constable's work throughout his life, even in later years when he was based in London and Hampstead, and he made regular extended trips back to Suffolk until 1817.

The over-use of Constable's work and that of his followers as a representation of idyllic rural life in advertising has resulted in the generalisation of Constable's works as being 'chocolate-box paintings'. However, his choice of subject matter was more than just picturesque views of country life; he painted places that were very familiar to him and held particular personal importance. Yet by the early 1820s Constable was painting against a backdrop of increasing industrialisation and rural revolt, working-class dissent and political unrest. This environment, combined with the death of his wife Maria in 1828 and Constable's increasing social alienation, lead to undertones of unease in much of his later work. His paintings became moodier and agitated, dominated by extremes of weather and climate. Indeed, in Constable's most-referenced quote he said that "painting is but another word for feeling".

'Cottage at East Bergholt' is a dramatic, turbulent painting; its atmosphere conveys the supremacy of the force of nature. Dynamism is created by the chiaroscuro (contrasted areas of light and dark), with very dark areas in the undergrowth on the left foreground and in the looming sky, contrasted by the brighter area in the centre of the picture where the sunlight has broken through the clouds. This is enhanced by the loose expressionist impasto (thickly applied pigment) of the paint applied in fast strokes and dabs, often of pure colour. When viewed closely these marks of paint appear almost to be part of an abstract painting, but transform at a distance to highlight details of the trees and undergrowth, with the white flecked highlights called "Constable's snow" featuring on the left. His 'A Cottage in The Cornfield' of 1833 is a very similar painting; yet it has been polished and refined for exhibiting at the Royal Academy and lacks the energy of 'Cottage at East Bergholt'.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were a significant number of paintings in Constable's late style appearing on the art market. Many of these turned out to be forgeries created in the 1890s when his late 'impressionist' style had became popular due to the advent of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Controversy over the authenticity of many 'Constables' did not evade 'Cottage at East Bergholt'. In fact, when the painting was lent to the Royal Academy show in 1893 by James Orrock, the painter George D Leslie - son of the painter and Constable's biographer C Robert Leslie - publicly condemned the painting in the journal the 'Athenaeum' as being a forgery, saying that it was "mere palette-scrapings". A dispute ensued with Orrock beginning legal action against Leslie for his accusations, Leslie eventually apologised, and Orrock withdrew his application for libel. Orrock later sold over sixty paintings believed to be by Constable to Lever, yet by 1925 at the time of Lever's death, many of them were sold by the executor's of Lever's will. By then only a few of the sixty were accepted as genuine works by Constable.

The painting

Constable painted 'Cottage at East Bergholt' when he was living in Hampstead at the end of his life, though the subject is a combination of earlier Suffolk works and sketches. The composition is from a drawing of 1817 that he reworked in 'A Cottage With a Rainbow' during the 1820s. Motifs likewise were incorporated from earlier works, such as the donkey from 'A Cottage in the Cornfield' of 1833 and the ferryman from a version of 'A Farmhouse near the Water's Edge'. Rainbows are prevalent in his late works and hold religious, romantic, and literary resonance, while harking back to works such as Rubens' 'The Rainbow Landscape' c 1636/7, also painted at the end of Rubens' life. Indeed, in a lecture Constable expressed his admiration for Rubens and his depictions of climatic extremes. The triple rainbow in 'Cottage at East Bergholt' seems to be added as an afterthought as strips of canvas have been added to the right to accommodate the two furthermost arcs.

'Cottage at East Bergholt' was acquired by Henry Engleheart, youngest son of the miniaturist George Engleheart some time after 1834 and it hung in his dining room at Bedfont Lodge, Middlesex where it was known as 'Cornfield' by Constable. It was then sold by J C D Engleheart through Sir J C Robinson to James Orrock in 1893. Orrock then sold it at Christie's in 1904 where it was bought by Agnew for W H Lever, later Lord Leverhulme, who presented it to the Lady Lever Art Gallery in 1922.