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Sketch for "A Boat Passing a Lock"

Sketch for the painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

John Constable, English, 1776 - 1837

Made in Great Britain, Europe


Oil on canvas

55 1/2 × 48 inches (141 × 121.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

* Gallery 392, European Art 1500-1850, third floor (Haas Gallery)

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The John Howard McFadden Collection, 1928

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On the far right a barge waits for the sluice gates to open and lower the water level. The navigator, in a red waistcoat, has just put down his fishing pole to work the lock. In a letter to a friend the artist expressed his enthusiasm for this kind of subject: "The sound of water escaping from Mill dams . . . Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things. . . . As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such Places." This is a preliminary version of a painting that, exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1824, became Constable's most popular work up to that time.

Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Constable first mentioned the picture that would be known as The Lock in a letter to John Fisher of October 31, 1822: "I have got an excellent subject for a six foot canvas which I should certainly paint for next year...but I have neither time nor money to speculate with, & my children begin to swarm."1 Family illness (“anxiety--watching--& nursing--& my own present indisposition")2 kept him away from his easel from Christmas to February. But on February 21, 1823, he wrote to Fisher, "I have put a large upright landscape in hand, and I hope to get it ready for the Academy."3

    This large upright was almost certainly the Philadelphia Sketch for "A Boat Passing a Lock.” The subject is the opening of sluice gates to lower the level of water in the upper lock, where a barge waits before continuing its journey upstream. The site shown is Flatford on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the distance and Flatford Mill at the spectator's back. The painting's shape was originally horizontal, as were all Constable's other six-foot academy "set pieces" and as later versions of The Lock theme would also be (see horizontal versions The Lock, 1826, oil on canvas, 40 x 50" {101.6 x 127 cm.}, London, Royal Academy and The Lock, c. 1826, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 51 1/8" {102.9 x 129.8 cm.}, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria). But Constable added to the canvas at the top and cut down (by how much we do not know) on the right. The change in shape presumably took place between the letter of October 1822 and the one of February 1823. No preliminary drawings for the Philadelphia Museum of Art full-sized sketch are known, and indeed, the many changes to the shape and the composition of the sketch suggest that the artist worked partly by instinct, drastically rearranging and reshaping as he worked. Staley has suggested that one reason the Philadelphia sketch might not have been developed further is that Constable made too many changes for the alterations not to be noticeable and so decided to start on a fresh canvas.4 On the reverse of this canvas is a fragmentary sketch of a young girl. The differences between the full-sized sketch and the finished version (John Constable, A Boat Passing a Lock, 1824, oil on canvas, 56 x 47 1/2" {142.2 x 120.6 cm.} Gloucestershire, Sudeley Castle, Trustees of the Walter Morrison Pictures Settlement), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824, bought by the draper James Morrison (1790-1857) and now at Sudeley Castle (henceforth: Morrison version), are instructive.

    The Morrison version lacks the additions at the top (and bottom), thus indicating that Constable worked on an intact canvas, making no substantial changes in the composition. X-radiographs show that in the Philadelphia sketch the artist originally included crossbeams over the lock, used presumably to reinforce the sides of the lock. These were painted out almost certainly for purely aesthetic reasons: to include them at close range meant blotting out large areas of tree, sky, and distance. These crossbeams are also omitted in the Morrison version. Constable's touch is surer in the Morrison picture and he brings his details to a high degree of finish: the sky is bright blue, the clouds fleecy white, the waistcoat of the navigator (or navvy) working the lock is bright red; the articulation of foreground, middleground, and distance is much clearer; the plants in the foreground are probably identifiable, which is not true of those in the Philadelphia sketch; and the complicated spatial structure of the lock itself, its intricate architecture, is the chief interest of the left half of the Morrison picture.

    In the Philadelphia version the navvy has just put down his fishing rod to attend to his duties. This genre-like incident Constable abandoned in the finished painting for two reasons. First, by eliminating the narrative element, the artist could stabilize the scene, suppressing the particular to emphasize the timeless; and second, the fascinating shape of the wooden lock, which draws the eye from left to right across the foreground of the picture, needed a stronger element than the slim fishing rod to connect it with the right foreground.

    What we feel most in the Morrison picture is its freshness. Much more than in the Philadelphia sketch the artist caught the effect with heavy white impasto of water rushing out of the sluice gates at the lower left, so that we all but hear the sound of the creaking wooden gates and bubbling water foam. The artist might almost have intended the Morrison version to illustrate his remarks to Fisher in a letter of October 23, 1821: "The sound of water escaping from Mill dams...Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things....As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such Places."5 Twice Constable described his lock in similar language. To Fisher he wrote: "It is a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively--& soothing--calm and exhilarating, fresh--& blowing,''6 and again on April 13, 1825, speaking of the Morrison version which was back in his studio for Samuel William Revnolds (1774-1834) to engrave: "My Lock is now on my easil. It looks most beautifully silvery, windy & delicious--it is all health--& the absence of every thing stagnant, and is wonderfully got together after only this one year."7

    The loss of time through illness meant that The Lock was not ready for the Royal Academy exhibition of 1823 but was sent to the 1824 exhibition instead. Even by September 30, 1823, the artist did not know what his large subject for the academy of 1824 would be,8 and only on December 16, 1823, did he tell Fisher firmly that he would work on "my Lock."9 On April 15, 1824, while preparing for the academy, Constable wrote to Fisher, "I was never more fully bent on any picture than on that on which you left me engaged upon. It is going to its audit with all its deficiencies in hand--my friends all tell me it is my best. Be that as it may I have done my best. It is a good subject and an admirable instance of the picturesque."10

    On the opening day of the exhibition James Morrison bought The Lock. It was the most popular picture Constable had so far painted, if one excepts the French response to his Hay Wain which would be acclaimed later in 1824 at the Paris Salon. The Literary Gazette compared Constable to Richard Wilson (1713-1782);11 the aged Fuseli (1741-1825), leaning on the porter's arm, visited the picture every Sunday morning.12 On May 8, Constable wrote jubilantly to Fisher: "My picture is liked at the Academy. Indeed it forms a decided feature and its light cannot be put out, because it is the light of nature--the Mother of all that is valuable in poetry, painting or anything else."13 Perhaps the most welcome praise came from the engraver S. W. Reynolds, who offered to engrave the landscape gratis, because "take it for all in all, since the days of Gainsborough and Wilson, no landscape has been painted with so much truth and originality, so much art, so little artifice."14

    So deeply did Constable feel about his lock subject that he copied it in an upright format at least once (see upright version Landscape--A Barge Passing a Lock on the Stour, 1825, oil on canvas, 55 x 48" {139.7 x 122 cm.}, Hon. William Hamilton Collection, England) and allowed John Dunthorne to copy it under his supervision (but which of the versions this is is not certain). Then in 1825 he undertook the same subject in a horizontal format for the dealer James Carpenter (b. c. 1760). He never gave this picture to Carpenter but submitted it instead as his diploma work to the Royal Academy (The Lock, 1826, oil on canvas, 40 x 50” {101.6 x 127 cm.}, London, Royal Academy).

    Recalling that the artist originally conceived of the Philadelphia version as a horizontal picture with crossbeams on the lock,15 we might visualize his original intentions by looking to an earlier series, the Mill at Dedham (1818-19, 21 x 30 1/2”, London, Tate Gallery).16 In these views of a lock and mill the artist took a long view of the scene, from perhaps a quarter mile away, which enabled him to include the crossbeams over the lock but also forced him to show the mill buildings at the left. The artistic problem presented by the lock series, begun with the Philadelphia sketch, was to depict a similar scene from close by.

    In the fall of 1827 Constable revisited the site of Flatford Lock. At that time he executed a drawing on the spot showing the lock with crossbeams and willow tree (not the elm that appears in the Philadelphia and Morrison pictures). This drawing, on paper watermarked 1824, is now in the British Museum, and of all the lock paintings and sketches probably shows the site as it really was (John Constable, Flatford Lock, 1827, pencil on paper, watermarked 1824, 8 3/4 x 12 7/8" {22.2 x 32.7 cm.}, London, British Museum). Slightly earlier than the British Museum sketch is a pen and ink drawing in the Fitzwilliam Museum (John Constable, The Lock, c.1826, pen and sepia wash on paper, 11 1/4 x 14 1/2” {28 x 36.8 cm.} Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum), which is preparatory to the diploma picture. In both the British Museum and Fitzwilliam sketches, Constable wrestled with the problem of depicting the scene as it appeared in reality. The only way to include the crossbeams without throwing off the composition seems to have been to take a longer view of the lock so that the beams would be below the horizon, and this long view could only be achieved by standing (theoretically) in a boat in the river. In what may be the unfinished preparatory oil sketch for the diploma picture, now in Melbourne (John Constable, The Lock, c. 1826, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 51 1/8” {102.9 x 129.8 cm.}, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest), Constable once again painted in the crossbeams, as in the Philadelphia sketch for the Morrison picture; but once again he found they did not work and painted them out. In the diploma picture the artist was defeated by the problem, and the crossbeams do not appear. The other important difference in the Melbourne oil sketch and Royal Academy diploma picture is that the barge is traveling downstream, waiting for the navvy to raise the level of the water before the boat can enter the lock.

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp. 50-55.

    1. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence. 6 vols. Ipswich,1962-68, vol. 6, p. 100.
    2. Constable to Fisher, February 1, 1823, ibid., p. 109.
    3. Ibid., p. 112.
    4. Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts. Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and Drawings, 1760-1860 1968 (by Frederick Cummings, Allen Staley, and Robert Rosenblum), no. 128.
    5. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence. 6 vols. Ipswich,1962-68, vol. 6, p. 77.
    6. Ibid., p. 198.
    7. Ibid., p. 200.
    8. Ibid., p. 133.
    9. Ibid., p. 146.
    10. Ibid., p. 155.
    11. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 340. See also Basil Taylor. Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 2nd cd., rev. and enl. London, 1975, p. 207.
    12. R. B. Beckett, ed. John Constable’s Correspondence, vol. 5, p. 61.
    13. Ibid., vol. 6, p.157
    14. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 266.
    15. This was strictly accurate, but their absence was not particularly noticed by a Mrs. Godfrey of East Bergholt who in 1824 told Constable after seeing the Morrison picture at the academy that it flattered the spot bur did not belye nature." See Beckett, ed., 1962-68, vol. 1, p. 211.
    16. Robert Hoozee. L'Opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, no. 256, repro. Versions also in London, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Manchester, New Hampshire, Currier Gallery of Art.

    Catalogue of Oil Paintings by the Old Masters in the Possession of E.A. Leatham, Esq. Misarden Park, Gloucestershire (1898), p. 5; C. J. Holmes, Constable and His Influence on Landscape Painting. London, 1902.pp. 121, 247; Lord Windsor. John Constable, R.A. London and New York, 1903, p.203; William Roberts. "English Pictures in America." The Nineteenth Century, September 1913, p.541; "A Group of Paintings in the McFadden Collection." The American Magazine of Art, vol. 8, no. 3 (January 1917), repro. p. 108; William Roberts. "English Pictures in America." The Nineteenth Century, September 1913, pp. 3-5; William Roberts. "Recent Additions to Mr. McFadden's Collection." Art in America, vol. 6, no. 2 (February 1918), pp. 108-17. p. 114; William Roberts. "The John H. McFadden Collection II Landscape and Subject Pictures." The Connoisseur, vol. 53 (January 1919), p. 14, repro. p. 9; "Philadelphia's Diamond Jubilee," The Connoisseur, vol. 126 (October 1950), p. 130, repro. p. 131; "The Diamond Jubilee Exhibition," Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 45, no. 224 (winter 1950), p. 81, repro. p. 79; Andrew Shirley. "John Constable's 'Lock': The Newly Discovered Study." The Connoisseur, vol. 127 (May 1951), p.73, repro. p. 74; R. B. Beckett, John Constable and the Fishers: The Record of a Friendship (London, 1952), p. 121; R. B. Beckett. "Constable's 'Lock."' The Burlington Magazine, vol. 94, no. 594 (September 1952), pp. 255, 256, p. 253, fig 8; Frank Simpson. "Constable's 'Lock': A Postscript." The Connoisseur, vol. 12; Helen Comstock. "Constable in America." The Connoisseur, vol. 137 (May 1956), p. 282; W. G. Constable. "'The Lock' as a Theme in the Work of John Constable." In In Honour of Daryl Lindsay: Essays and Studies, edited by Franz Philipp and June Stewart. Melbourne, 1964. pp. 131, 134, pl. 117; Graham Reynolds. Constable: The Natural Painter. London, 1965. 2nd ed., London, 1976, pp. 73, 142, pl. 41; R.B Beckett, ed. Johny Constable's Correspondance. 6 vols. Ipswich, 1962-68, vol. 2, pp. 279-80, vol. 6, pp. 100, 101, 112, 114; Washinton, D.C., National Gallery of Art. John Constable: A Selection of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1969 (by Ross Watson and John Walker), see no. 29; Staley, "British Painting from Hogarth to Alma-Tadema." Apollo n.s., vol.100, July 1974, pp. 37-38; Basil Taylor, Constable: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolours. 1975, pp. 207-8, n. 39, pl. 100; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum (Arts Council of Great Britain). John Constable, R.A., 1766-1837: A Catalogue of Drawings and Watercolors with a Selection of Mezzortints by David the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1976, p. 108; London, Tate Gallery. Constalbe: Paintings, Watercolours, and Drawings, Febuary 18-April 25, 1976 (by Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-William, and Conal Shields).1976, p. 138; Alastair Smart and Attfield Brooks, Constable and His Country (London, 1976), p. 138; John Walker, John Constable. London, 1979, pl. 38; Robert Hoozee. L'Opera completa di Constable. Milan, 1979, no. 404; Graham Reynolds. The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1984, vol. 1, p. 135.
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Before painting his monumental, highly finished submissions to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy in London, John Constable painted preliminary sketches at the same large scale but with far freer execution. In this sketch for a painting shown at the 1824 exhibition and now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Constable worked out the massing of principal forms and, with vivid patches of impasto, the dominant tonalities of the composition. The picture shows a worker opening a sluice gate on a lock while a barge awaits; the setting is Flatford on the River Stour, which was for Constable a constant source of motifs. As the artist himself said of the painting, "It is a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively--& soothing--calm and exhilarating, fresh--& blowing." Christopher Riopelle, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 186.

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