John Constable RA, Waterloo Bridge from the left bank of the Thames

Waterloo Bridge from the left bank of the Thames, ca. 1820

John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)

RA Collection: Art

In this rapidly painted study, Constable depicts the River Thames teeming with boatmen, barges and bathers. The newly opened Waterloo bridge spans the river in the middle distance while Somerset House and St Paul's Cathedral are visible against the low horizon.

Named after the battle in which the allied armies defeated Napoleon on 18 June 1815, the bridge was formally opened by the Prince Regent in 1817. Constable was resident in London and may well have watched this ceremony.

In 1819 Constable began sketching the Thames around Whitehall Stairs. This may be a study for his 1832 painting The Opening of Waterloo Bridge ('Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817'), which depicted the opening ceremony with decorated barges filling the river. This finished painting was shown at RA in 1832. Constable also painted another earlier picture of the bridge which was more topographical and did not include the ceremony. This version was painted around 1820 to 1824 and is now in the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio.

This sketch seems closer to the latter and shows Somerset House and St. Pauls in the distance. Constable paints the scene from a low viewpoint and makes no reference to the opening ceremonies. On the left is the wall of Fife House and the large tree which was in its garden. The river is busy with the activities of boatmen, bathers and other river users.

On a visit to British Institution on 13 July 1819 he made several pencil copies of old master paintings including two marines by, or attributed to, Willem van der Velde the younger. On the back of the drawings he noted the sizes of the paintings and he measured the horizon levels. This possibly influenced his decision to adopt a very low horizon.

This oil sketch is closely based on drawing (Private Collection, Reynolds 1984, no.17.5, pl.3), although the RA sketch is extended to left to incorporate the large tree. There is some question as to whether it is actually a plein-air study made at the same time as the drawing, because the staffage of the tree is so similar that it might be a version of that drawing painted in the studio. The correspondence between the two is very exact in details such as the sail of the boat which cuts the line of the bridge between the third and fourth arches from the left: this detail is in turn carried on to the larger version of the composition in Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio.

Further Reading

Graham Reynolds,The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 1984, Text Vol. p. 36, no. 19.26; Plates Vol. pl. 89. Reference note: Later, No. 19.26

Leslie Parris, Ian Fleming-Williams & Conal Shields, Constable: Paintings, Watercolours & Drawings, ex. cat., Tate, 1976, p. 176

Constable, ex. cat. Tate Gallery, 1991, No. 104, p. 210

Object details

Waterloo Bridge from the left bank of the Thames
John Constable RA (1776 - 1837)
ca. 1820
Object type
Oil on paper laid on canvas

223 mm x 327 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Given by Isabel Constable 1888

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