A Midlands collector has consigned a fine study of a tree on the bank of a stream (the sight size is 11.9 x 9.2cm) to Halls Fine Art Auctioneers for their Fine furniture, works of art, ceramics and pictures sale on the 7th of December.
It has excellent provenance and is recorded and referenced in numerous publications. The vendors inherited it from a collector who bought it from the renowned Bond Street gallery, Thomas Agnew & Sons, in April, 1979. It was in the collection of Dr H.A.C.Gregory, M.C. who was a well-respected connoisseur noted for collecting the best examples by Constable. In fact, the Agnew’s label lists this work as having been exhibit number 38 in the Arts Council exhibition of Constable’s works in 1949. It is also listed as being in the Wildenstein Constable’s centenary exhibition in 1937. A venerable pedigree.
Furthermore, this work encapsulates Constable’s passion for trees in particular and the English countryside in general. Unusually, it is dated ’20 April 1821’. Research has revealed that the Suffolk Records Society (SRS) has a letter dated on this very day, written to his wife, Maria, in London. It was written in the latter part of the 20th from his birthplace, East Bergholt. So, this would have been drawn in the environs. Again, unusually we know the locale. He records in his letter that he called on the Godfreys in the morning and remarks that the hot cross buns he brought from London were ‘’quite acceptable’’ (1). This letter is a charming insight into this man’s character, who comes across as warm, humane and engaging. The plight and travails of some mutual acquaintances are recounted, along with his visits and his love of the countryside, which is particularly evident "I have called on most of the neighbours—drank tea at Ann's last evening—had a stormy walk home over the heath. . . How sweet and beautifull is every place & I visit my old haunts with renewed delight. . . Nothing can exceed the beautiful green of the meadows, which are beginning to fill with buttercups, & various flowers – the birds are singing from morning till night but most of all the sky larks. How delightful is the country, but I long to get back to what is still more dear to me… I hear a poor account of poor old Driffield. I shall if possible call on him on my way back…’ (2) and he signs off ‘How is my baby boy? Kiss all my darlings. Have they missed me?’ (3) This all brings the drawing to life, for it was drawn on the very same day he wrote these words and met the people he mentions in his missive.
This drawing is listed in Charles Rhyne’s chronology and is mentioned in a footnote on page 266 of JCCI in the SRS. Also, it is illustrated in Graham Reynolds book/raisonne ‘The Later paintings and Drawings of John Constable’ (see plate 224), where it is listed as ‘Whereabouts unknown’ (4); not now!
One thing that is not known and that is from which sketchbook this study originates. Maybe it is from the same one as another drawing of a willow stump which was also drawn in April 1821 at East Bergholt, which is 1mm larger and thought to have been trimmed (5). Could this be one of ‘The Three on one mount’ that is on an old typewritten label verso under the heading ‘Tree Studies’. There is another with different subject matter, depicting a gentleman on a bank, which might come from the same book too. It is ostensibly slightly larger, measuring 9.1 x 12.4cm and dated ‘7Sepr 1820’ (5), but could this difference in size be due to the mounting for Halls Fine Art’s example, which is framed and mounted, for we don’t know how much of the work on paper is concealed by the mount. It is a tantalising prospect, especially for the current owner(s) of other elements of this sketchbook, for whom these similarities in size would be of great interest.
Like so many works of art, it is often an object’s story and its provenance that can combine to be as important as the work itself. How much will be determined in Halls Fine Art’s sale in December, where it will be offered with an estimate of £8,000-12,000.
1-3. Beckett, R, M. John Constable Correspondence II (JCCII), pp. 266-67 and JCC I, pp. 195-96.