Dell at Helmingham Park

Imitator of John Constable, English, 1776 - 1837

Made in England, Europe

After 1828

Oil on canvas

30 1/2 x 38 1/2 inches (77.5 x 97.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

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  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    In a letter of July 25, 1800, from Helmingham Park in Suffolk, about twenty miles north of East Bergholt, John Constable wrote to John Dunthorne: "Here I am quite alone among the oaks and solitude of Helmingham Park....I am left at liberty to wander where I please during the day. There are abundance of fine trees of all sorts; though the place on the whole affords good objects rather than fine scenery; but I can hardly judge yet what I may have to show you. I have made one or two drawings that may be usefull."1 One of the drawings to which Constable referred is a study dated July 23, 1800, now belonging to the Clonterbrook Trustees (The Dell at Helmington Park, 1800, pencil, pen, and wash on paper, 21 x 26 1/8” {53.3 x 66.4 cm.}, The Clonterbrook Trustees) and one of Constable's most important early works on paper. On it all painted versions of the scene are based. It depicts a water course running through the park at Helmingham Hall, the seat of the Tollemache family, and in particular Constable's early patron and lifelong friend the Countess of Dysart, wife of Wilbraham, 6th Earl of Dysart, who in 1807 would commission from Constable a number of portraits and copies after Reynolds (1723-1792).

    A year before this letter to Dunthorne, Constable had written on August 18, 1799, to John Thomas "Antiquity" Smith while sketching in Ipswich, "I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree."2 The composition of the Clonterbrook drawing may remind us of Gainsborough (1727-1788) in its dense, lush foliage and the motif of the rustic bridge. When a fine, smaller, finished version of The Dell at Helmingham was exhibited at the British Institution in 1833 (1825-26, retouched 1833, oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 36” {70.8 x 91.4 cm.}, Philadelphia, John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 871), the critic of the Morning Post at once made this association, writing that it had been painted in a "bygone style" with "all the richness of truth of Gainsborough's best efforts without his tameness." The same critic went on to compare the "brilliance and variety of colour [to] many of the landscapes of Rubens."3 Even more sensibly he might have pointed to Constable's overriding debt to the landscapes of Jacob van Ruisdael (1628?-1682).

    The first painted version of The Dell at Helmingham Park dates from about 1823 (c. 1823-26, oil on canvas, 28 x 36 1/4” {71.1 x 92.1 cm.}, Anthony W. Bacon Collection, on loan to Birmingham, City Art Gallery) when Constable wrote to Fisher on July 10 recording Sir George Beaumont's satisfaction "with a large wood I have just toned."4 The sketch in the Louvre, probably begun by c. 1825-26 (The Dell at Helmingham Park, c. 1825-26, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 50 3/4” {102.9 x 128.9 cm.}, Paris, Louvre) may have been preparatory to the canvas ordered by James Carpenter in 1826 (The Dell at Helmingham Park, 1826, oil on canvas, 44 5/8 x 51 1/2 {113.3 x 130.8 cm.} Kansas City, Missouri, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, Atkins Museum of Fine Arts). Of this, Constable wrote to Fisher on May 24, 1830, "My Wood is liked [at the Royal Academy] but I suffer for want of that little completion which you always feel the regret of--and you are quite right. I have filled my head with certain notions of freshness--sparkle--brightness--till it has influenced my practice in no small degree, & is in fact taking the place of truth so invidious is manner, in all things--it is a species of self worship--which should always be combated--& we have nature (another word for moral feeling) always in our reach to do it with--if we will have the resolution to look at her.''5 In all versions of the subject the trees blot out the light, darkening the image and producing a sense of claustrophobia. In its emptiness and bosky gloom, Helmingham Dell prefigures such moving valedictory late works as the Cenotaph.6 However, Constable painted (at least) the Johnson Collection version before his wife Maria's death in 1828,7 so we cannot necessarily correlate the overcast mood of the picture with Constable's later sense of helplessness and depression.

    This version is an imitation, never touched by Constable's hand, and probably painted with the intention to deceive. It is hard to know what the painter was looking at when he painted the bridge from a nonexistent spot much higher up than the riverbed where Constable must have stood to draw the Clonterbrook sketch. The trees here are structurally misunderstood, bending into shapes in which, as the Clonterbrook drawing shows, they did not grow. The nervous flicking brushwork of the Johnson Collection or Kansas City versions, which constantly define form and texture, is here rendered in meaningless scratches. The house to the left behind the trees is a feature not present either in reality or in any of the genuine versions of the picture.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 64-66.

    1. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence. Ipswich, 1962-68, vol. 2, p. 25.
    2. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 16.
    3. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 90; Basil Taylor.Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. London, 1975, p. 211.
    4. Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 6, p. 125.
    5. Ibid., p. 258.
    6. Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Erected in the Grounds of Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, by the Late Sir George Beaumont, Bart, exhibited 1836, oil on canvas, 52 x 42 3/4", London, National Gallery. 7. However, note that Constable retouched this version in 1833.

    William Roberts. Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures Formed by John H. McFadden, Esq., of Philadelphia, Pa. London, 1917, pp. 9-10; William Roberts. "Recent Additions to Mr. McFadden's Collection." Art in America, vol. 6, no. 2 (February 1918), p. 114, p. 111 fig. 4; William Roberts. "The John H. McFadden Collection II: Landscape and Subject Pictures." The Connoisseur, vol. 53 (January 1919), p. 14, repro. p.10; Ella S. Siple. "Art in America: Philadelphia's New Museum." The Burlington Magazine, vol. 52, no. 302 (May 1928, p. 255; Helen Comstock. "Constable in America." The Connoisseur, vol. 137 (May 1956), p. 282, p. 284 fig. 3; Beckett, 1961, p. 13, p. 12 fig. 7; R. B. Beckett. "Constable's ‘Helmingham Dell.’” The Art Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1 (spring 1961), 1962-68, vol. 4, p. 107; Basil Taylor. Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 2nd ed., rev. and enl. London, 1975., pls. 127,130; Robert Hoozee. L'Opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, no. 699.