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1836 "The Last Time in the Old House"

Constable’s celebrated painting The Cenotaph, which today hangs in the National Gallery, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836, where it was allocated a place in the Great Room (Fig. 1). The picture shows the cenotaph dedicated to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds erected in 1812 by the connoisseur and collector Sir George Beaumont in the grounds of Coleorton, his Leicestershire house.1 It was the only oil Constable sent to the Academy that year.2 He had originally hoped to submit a painting of Arundel Mill and Castle as well but, unable to complete both paintings in time for the opening and aware that this was the Academy’s final exhibition at Somerset House before its move in the following year to a new site in Trafalgar Square, Constable decided to prioritise The Cenotaph.3 He was, he said, keen to see the names of Reynolds and Beaumont “once more in the catalogue, for the last time in the old house”.4

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Constable selected the subject of The Cenotaph, then, in order to pay homage to Reynolds and Beaumont at a turning point in the institution’s history. It is in many ways a rather traditional painting, in which Constable directly addresses the appropriately Reynoldsian subject of the competing claims of nature and art, issues with which he had himself wrestled his entire career. On the other hand, like so much of Constable’s late work, in its liberated handling—inevitably disliked by some of the critics—The Cenotaph also reveals the more radical side of his artistic personality.5 Above all, the painting reflects the interesting fusion one so often finds in Constable’s work between his public and his personal faces.

The Cenotaph is based on a drawing that Constable had made when enjoying an extended stay with Beaumont at Coleorton in 1823 (Fig. 2).6 In the drawing, the artist shows the cenotaph from close by, situated at the end of a grove of lime trees which William Wordsworth had likened to a “darksome aisle” in some lines of verse which Beaumont—a close friend and great admirer of Reynolds—had commissioned from the poet for the cenotaph’s memorial inscription. Wordsworth’s verse, cut into the stone pedestal of the urn, is broadly indicated by Constable in his pencil sketch but is only legible in his complete ink transcription on the back of the drawing. The same lines were included in the 1836 printed Academy catalogue, credited as Inscribed by Wordsworth, at the request, and in the name of Sir George Beaumont:

Ye lime trees ranged before this hallowed urn
Shoot forth with lively power at spring’s return,
And be not slow a stately growth to rear,
Of pillars branching off from year to year,
Till they have formed a darksome aisle,
Like a recess within that sacred pile.
Where REYNOLDS mid our country’s noblest dead,
In the last sanctity of fame is laid;
And worthily within those sacred bounds
The excelling painter sleeps—yet here may I,
Unblamed amid my patrimonial grounds,
Raise this frail tribute to his memory—
An humble follower of the soothing art
That he professed—attached to him in heart,
Admiring, loving—and, with grief and pride,
Feeling what England lost when Reynolds died.

At the head of the memorial grove, Beaumont had also installed busts of Michelangelo and Raphael, for the latter were among Reynolds’ chief artistic heroes who had featured prominently in his Discourses on art as practitioners of the “Great Style”. The busts do not appear in Constable’s 1823 drawing as, in reality, they were situated well behind the spot from which he made it. However, he chose to include them in the painting, and after extending his canvas on all four sides was better able to accommodate them in the composition.7 He then inserted a stag in a prime position between the cenotaph and the bust of Michelangelo which seems to gesture, simultaneously, towards the statue of the latter and the viewer as if to emphasise that the Florentine was the most revered of all Reynolds’ artistic heroes.

This is, indeed, surely the explanation of the stag’s presence in the picture, in this position, rather than—as has been argued by some scholars—having been included for its symbolic value.8 Or else, one might add, one of the explanations for its presence. For, bearing in mind that the setting of The Cenotaph is a grove in the grounds of Beaumont’s country residence at Coleorton, and taking into account the extent to which Constable often fuses the public and the personal in his later work, one might also read the stag’s inclusion as relating to Constable’s aim to pay joint homage to Reynolds and Beaumont in the picture.

Constable had first met Beaumont in Suffolk in the 1790s, before he started training at the Royal Academy Schools. In London, the older man had offered him invaluable help in the form of access to private collections, especially his own, and instilled in his protégé the importance of Reynolds’ Discourses.9 At this stage, their relationship was quite formal, Constable sometimes having to counteract unwelcome advice from the older man such as to paint in old master browns.10 When Constable spent six weeks at Coleorton in 1823, however, their relationship was on a more even footing. By 1836—nine years after Beaumont’s death and when Constable told Wordsworth he felt indebted to Sir George “for what I am as an artist” —the artist no doubt looked back at this period with fond memories, recalling the time spent at Coleorton copying Beaumont’s Old Masters, painting alongside Sir George (an amateur painter), or reading with him from As You Like It.11 Constable knew that As You Like It was one of Beaumont’s favourite Shakespearean plays, just as he also knew that an oil by Sir George, Jacques and the Wounded Stag from As You Like It was perhaps his most ambitious picture.12 The inclusion of a stag in The Cenotaph is, then, surely also a homage to Beaumont as, albeit more coincidentally, is the painting’s autumnal palette.13

There is a further possible explanation for the stag—and the subject of the picture more generally—which is that it may have been intended by Constable to be read as a subtle allusion to Reynolds’ academic ideals. It has often been observed that the handling and tonality of The Cenotaph is reminiscent of Titian, especially his late mythological, Ovidian subjects such as the Death of Actaeon (ca. 1559–1576), in which Actaeon is turned into a stag by the goddess Diana for having spied on her and her nymphs while bathing.14 Constable knew the latter picture well, and was also familiar with Reynolds’ double portrait, The Archers (1769), closely modelled on that painting.15 Given that he would also have known of Reynolds’ great admiration for Titian, one can speculate that he may have intended The Cenotaph, with its Titianesque handling and its inclusion of the statues of Michelangelo and Raphael, to allude to the long-running Academic debate (discussed by Reynolds in the Discourses) between the relative merits of “disegno” and “colore”, between the “great” and the “ornamental”—the Florentine and Venetian—styles.16

Assuming, then, that he was indeed alluding to these artistic issues in The Cenotaph, Constable may have intended to suggest a reconciliation over this particular debate. After all, pictures by these Old Masters were soon to share space with contemporary British art in a new building in Trafalgar Square—a development Constable seems keenly to have anticipated judging by a spirited ink sketch he made of William Wilkins’ ground plan around this time for a friend.17 Well aware of new developments in art, Constable was quick to praise the talents of an up-and-coming younger generation as evidenced by his praise for some of their exhibits in the very same Academy display, in 1836, in which his own painting, The Cenotaph, was shown.18 Above all, the fact that Constable chose to complete The Cenotaph for this particular exhibition, “the last … in the old House”, suggests he had now come to terms with the idea of a National Gallery—in which Beaumont’s own private collection was to find its permanent home—towards which he had once been violently opposed.19

  1. For full catalogue details of The Cenotaph, see Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1984), no. 36.1; and Judy Egerton, The British School: National Gallery Catalogues (London: National Gallery, 1998), 58–63.↩︎

  2. However, he did also send in a watercolour of Stonehenge that year; see Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, no. 36.3.↩︎

  3. Arundel Mill and Castle was exhibited posthumously, at the 1837 Academy Exhibition, after its move to Trafalgar Square.↩︎

  4. Letter to George Constable, 12 May 1836, in R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence V: Various Friends, with Charles Boner and the Artists Children (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1967), 32–33.↩︎

  5. See, especially, the review by The Times, 4 May 1836, cited in J.C. Ivy, Constable and the Critics 1802–1837 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press in association with Suffolk Records Society, 1991), no. 36.16, 215.↩︎

  6. Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, no. 23.31, pencil and grey wash; Constable made the drawing on the last day of his visit to Coleorton, 28 November 1823.↩︎

  7. See Egerton, “Technical Notes”, in The British School, 58. Constable had actually started painting The Cenotaph in 1833, but then put the canvas aside. It is generally assumed that the extensions were added when he resumed work on the picture in 1835–1836. No drawings by him for the two busts survive.↩︎

  8. The stag, strictly speaking a dappled, palmate-antlered “fallow buck” (see Ivy, Constable and the Critics 1802–1837, 215), appears first to have been painted by Constable as a red deer (see Egerton, The British School, 62). Ronald Paulson suggested it may reference the hunted stag from Thomson’s Autumn or Claude’s Ascanius, or that it might symbolise St Eustace—even, indeed, Constable himself standing as it were in the ambience of Reynolds, Raphael, and Michelangelo; see Ronald Paulson, Literary Landscape: Turner and Constable (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982), 135–138. In the opinion of this author, this interpretation misses the essential point that Constable’s art is fundamentally an autobiographical art, with powerful associationist overtones but not—or at least only very rarely—symbolist ones. Indeed Constable claimed to distrust the use of overt symbolism in painting, considering it as “outside the reach of art”, as he famously stated in his assessment of Jacob Van Ruisdael’s Jewish Cemetery (ca. 1654–1655); see R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Discourses (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1970), 64: and M. Evans, John Constable: The Making of a Master, exhibition catalogue (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2014), 162–164.↩︎

  9. Indeed a number of ideas that Constable expresses in his correspondence or in his lectures on “The History of Landscape Painting” in the 1830s can be traced directly back to Reynolds. For his lectures, see R.B. Beckett, John Constable’s Discourses.↩︎

  10. Constable is famously said by his first biographer to have lain a Cremona violin on a stretch of intense green lawn to prove to Beaumont that browns were unsuitable equivalents for nature; see C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq. R.A, Composed Chiefly of the Letters [1843], J. Mayne (ed.), (London: Phaidon, 1951), 114.↩︎

  11. For the letter to Wordsworth, see Mark. L. Reed, “Constable, Wordsworth, and Beaumont: A New Constable Letter in Evidence”, The Art Bulletin 64, no. 3 (1982): 481–483.↩︎

  12. Constable would have known Beaumont’s picture through their personal acquaintance but, according to Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, it was also exhibited at the Academy in 1819; see Felicity Owen and David Blayney Brown, Collector of Genius: A Life of Sir George Beaumont (New Haven CT: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 1988), 197. Constable himself made a watercolour of the Jacques subject inspired no doubt by Beaumont’s oil, which was engraved by David Lucas for English Landscape; see Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, no. 32.10.↩︎

  13. Although Beaumont would have approved of the painting’s “old master browns”, the drawing on which the subject is based had in fact been made by Constable in late November; see note 6, and also Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq. R.A, 254.↩︎

  14. See, especially, Malcolm Cormack, Constable (Oxford: Phaidon, 1986), 224; J. Nash, “In [the] Memory of John Constable and the Tradition of Landscape Painting”, in Jonathan Clarkson and Neil Cox (eds), Constable & Wivenhoe Park: Reality & Vision (Colchester: University of Essex, 2000), 43–44; and N. Penny, The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings: National Gallery Catalogues, Vol. II: Venice 1540–1600 (London: National Gallery, 2008), xvi–xvii.↩︎

  15. The Death of Actaeon was acquired at the sale of the Orléans Collection by Abraham Hume, later to become (like Beaumont) a director of the British Institution and Titian’s first biographer in English. Constable would have known the picture as it was lent to the British Institution’s exhibition of Old Masters in 1819. He would also have known Reynolds’ The Archers, as it had been lent to the Reynolds retrospective exhibition at the British Institution in 1813, which we know Constable saw.↩︎

  16. A suggestion first made by this author at a conference organised by Peter Humfrey at St Andrew’s University in 2011, The Reception of Titian in Britain: From Reynolds to Ruskin; see Anne Lyles, “Constable and Titian”, in Peter Humfrey (ed.), The Reception of Titian in Britain: From Reynolds to Ruskin (Turnhout: Brépols, 2013), 109–122.↩︎

  17. It was drawn by Constable for the portrait and miniature painter, Alfred Tidey; see Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, no. 37.3.↩︎

  18. For example, in the same letter of 12 May 1836, where Constable told George Constable he had prioritised The Cenotaph for Exhibition (cited note 4 above), he also spoke of the “very powerfull” work submitted that year by five non-members, Charles Landseer, J.R. Herbert, J.P. Knight, John Partridge, and David Roberts.↩︎

  19. “should there be a national gallery … there will be an end to the Art in poor old England”, from Letter to John Fisher, 6 December 1822, in R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence VI: The Fishers (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1968), 107.↩︎

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