John Constable RA, A Boat passing a Lock

A Boat passing a Lock, 1826

John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)

RA Collection: Art

Under dramatic rainclouds, a boat is tied up, waiting to continue its journey upstream. The central figure, a man in a red waistcoat holding a large crowbar, strains to open the lock mechanism. He is bare-footed and is more likely to be a boatman rather than the lock keeper. Thirteen locks were installed on the River Stour to navigate the waterway.

This lock is the lower gate of Flatford Lock and the view is looking westwards with Dedham Church tower visible almost in the centre in the distance. In the background at the far right is Flatford Old Bridge.

This scene includes many of the elements for which Constable professed a great fondness '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' (Beckett, VI, p.77).

Although Constable was not living in Suffolk at this time the Stour valley provided subjects throughout his life. As he explained to a friend, he associated ‘my “careless boyhood” to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter … I had often thought of pictures of them before I had ever touched a pencil.’ (B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence, Ipswich, Suffolk, vol. VI, 1968, p.78)

The landscape is dominated by the threatening weather conditions on the left. Drawing on his studies of weather effects made in Hampstead and Brighton, Constable convincingly correlates the light falling on the landscape with the configuration of the clouds in the sky and recognises the power of a specific weather condition to animate and give emotional charge to an otherwise seemingly humble, everyday rural scene.

Constable was elected a Royal Academician on 10th February 1829. Although he had at least three major works in his possession, he decided that he wanted to deposit ‘A Boat passing a Lock’ as his Diploma work. The owner of the painting, a friend, James Carpenter, agreed to return the picture to Constable on the condition he received a replacement, preferably a scene of Hampstead Heath. Constable deposited 100 guineas with Sir C. Scott’s banking house as a guarantee that he would paint a picture of the same size by June 1830. He began painting ‘Helmingham Dale’ for Carpenter.

On 15 February 1830, he wrote to Carpenter: ‘if “your Wood” is not finished by the exhibition – I will hang my- self on one of the trees!!! Your Heath is likewise began’ (Beckett IV, 1966, p. 141). He wrote again on the 18th March, saying ‘Will you soon call again – Your picture is getting on nicely – but I will not “halloo ‘til I am out of the wood”. I cannot get out by daylight’ (ibid. p. 142).

On 2 April, just before he sent the picture to the Royal Academy exhibition he wrote to Carpenter saying that he would not give him the promised painting after all but forfeit the 100 guineas.

The composition of this picture is a variation on another that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1824, entitled The Lock (previously Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid, sold 3 July 2012, now Private Collection), but in this work he changed the format from portrait to landscape and slightly varied the action.

There is a large sketch of the upright version, The Lock, c.1823 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) which may have been altered by the addition of strip of canvas to the top to increase the height by about 28.5cm and that the right hand side was cut down. This sketch therefore could have originally have been horizontal in shape.

Further Reading

R.B. Beckett, John Constable's Correspondence VI, The Fishers Vol VI, Ipswich, Suffolk, 1968

Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, New Haven and London, 1984, Text Vol. p. 172, no. 26.15; Plates Vol. pl. 626.

Malcolm Cormack, Constable, 1986, pp.195-96

Constable: The Great Landscapes, Tate, 2006, pp.152-55

Object details

A Boat passing a Lock
John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)
Object type
Oil on canvas

1016 mm x 1270 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by John Constable RA accepted 1829

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