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John Constable RA, Somerset House

Somerset House, ca. 1819

John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)

RA Collection: Art

On free display in Collection Gallery

The unfinished South side of Somerset House has boats moored at its entrance arches. The North wing of Somerset House was the home of the Royal Academy when Constable painted this sketch.

Painted shortly after Constable became an Associate of the Royal Academy, this sketch shows Somerset House and boats, with the spire of St Mary le-Strand (later hidden) behind. The small inlet in which the boats are moored in the sketch was built over in about 1830 when Somerset House was completed.

This sketch dates from about 1819 when Constable was contemplating his large painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge, an event which he had seen in 1817. There are a number of London sketches from 1819 and Malcolm Cormack suggests that the prominence of Somerset House in some of the sketches may reflect both Constable's desire to win official recognition from the RA (Cormack, p.215) and also show that he could tackle a wider variety of subjects than Suffolk pictures.

Constable wrote in 1814 to Maria Bicknell, his fiancée, that ‘I am hardly yet got reconciled to brick walls and dirty streets, after leaving the endearing scenes of Suffolk’ (12 November 1814, Beckett 11, p. 136). However once married and with a growing family Constable had to live in London to fund his family and promote his career. He started sketching along the Thames from Windsor to Putney, possibly because the river life in some way reminded him the Stour.

Constable's first married home was in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, half a mile from Somerset House. He had studied as a student at the Royal Academy (then based at Somerset House) from 1799 and as a Visitor to the RA Schools once elected a Royal Academician, he set the model in the Life Room at Somerset House a few days before his death in 1837.

In this sketch Constable emphasises great mass of the building and animates the scene with the reflection of the sky on the water as well as including brightly coloured figures in foreground.

Further Reading

Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1984, Text Vol. p. 41, no. 19.38; Plates Vol. pl. 128

British Paintings 1500-1800, Sotheby's London, 16 November 1988, lot. 96, p. 51, repr p. 51

Malcolm Cormack, Constable, 1986, p.215

R.B. Beckett, John Constable's Correspondence II, Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs. Constable) Vol II, Ipswich, Suffolk, 1964

Object details

Somerset House
John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)
ca. 1819
Object type
Oil on paper laid on canvas

203 mm x 254 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Purchased from Sotheby's (London) in 1988

Associated works of art

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