Newly-discovered John Constable sketch surfaces ahead of Making of a Master at V&A

By Ben Miller | 26 November 2013

A previously undiscovered John Constable sketch has been found in the lining of a canvas by conservators preparing for a major autumn 2014 V&A exhibition

An image of an oil painting of a landscape scene
John Constable, Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead (reverse) (circa 1821-1822). Oil on canvas© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Conservators have discovered an entirely new John Constable sketch, made in oil on the back of an existing painting in the museum’s collection, during preparations for a major exhibition of the artist’s work at the V&A next year.

Experts had previously assumed the mystery composition, first discovered through x-radiography scans, had merely been traces of an over-painted scene on the front of the work, Branch Hill Pond: Hampstead, which was completed in 1821 or 1822.

An image of a painting of a landscape scene with the sun shining behind a cloud in the sky
John Constable, Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead (circa 1821-1822). Oil on canvas© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Clare Richardson and Nicola Costaras, of the museum, found the sketch when the lining became loose on the original canvas.

“Constable was thrifty with his artist’s materials and sometimes painted sketches on both sides of scraps of reused canvas,” says Mark Evans, the Senior Curator of Paintings at the V&A, calling the discovery a “rare” and “enormously exciting” breakthrough.

“This scene, painted on the reverse of another sketch, had been concealed for well over a century beneath a lining canvas.

“It depicts a narrow clearing fringed by trees set against an unsettled sky, and in the foreground what appears to be a smoking brick kiln, which was a common sight on Hampstead Heath during the Regency building boom.

“We’re looking forward to displaying the oil sketches on both sides of the canvas as part of the major Constable exhibition next autumn."

The museum’s register of 1888, when Constable’s last surviving child, Isabel, gave hundreds of paintings, sketches, oils, watercolours and sketchbooks from her father’s studio to the V&A, records many arriving glazed or in frames, meaning that the reverse scenes often remained unnoticed.

Tacking margins from the painting have been folded, flattened and painted over, leading curators to believe that the canvas was pinned to a solid support – probably the lid of the artist’s paint box, which he commonly used for sketching in oils in outdoor settings.

The sketch will go on display in the museum’s Edwin and Susan Davies Galleries from today (November 27 2013), before featuring in the exhibition next autumn.

  • Constable: The Making of a Master opens at the V&A on September 20 2014.

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