THE ARTIST JOHN Constable (1776-1837) lived at various addresses in London’s Hampstead. There, he created many sketches and paintings. He was extremely interested in depicting clouds – difficult subjects for an artist to portray convincingly, but Constable was able to do it well. Hampstead, high above most of the rest of London, provided a good spot for an artist interested in creating pictures of meteorological phenomena. High above the built-up parts of the city with no obstructions in his field of vision, Constable was able to set up his easel under a vast sky.
Recently (5th of June 2023), we visited the pre-auction viewing rooms at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street. In one of the galleries, paintings by ‘Old Masters’ were on display. One of them, which caught my eye, was by Constable, and labelled “Study for Hampstead Heath with a rainbow”. Valued at between £300,000 and £400,000, this picture includes a pond in the foreground; two people on the edge of the pond; some trees; a windmill with some small buildings near it; and a flock of birds flying above a small hill. This rustic scene is lovely, but what really catches the viewer’s attention is the sky. Constable has painted billowing clouds, which almost completely hide the clear sky behind them. Some of the clouds are white and others are ominously grey. Almost as accurate as a photograph, this cloudscape does more than slavishly reproduce what the artist saw – it manages to evoke what he must have felt seeing these clouds. And given the fleeting, ever-changing appearances of clouds, the artist must have worked swiftly to capture the celestial scene he saw.
Although I know that Hampstead once had a windmill near Whitestone Pond (now remembered by a lane called Windmill Hill), judging by its surroundings, the pond in the picture was not Whitestone. It might have been one that local enthusiasts he reconstructed recently – located beside Branch Hill. There is a painting in the Tate Gallery’s collections called “Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath, with a Boy Sitting on a Bank”, which has a similar appearance to that which I saw in Sotheby’s, except that there is no windmill. Constable made many paintings and sketches that included the Branch Hill Pond, but apart from the picture I saw in Sotheby’s, which is a study rather than a finished work, they do not include a windmill.
A few months ago, I published a book about Hampstead and some of its interesting neighbours (including Highgate, West Hampstead, and Primrose Hill). Some people have wondered about the title I chose. It was because of Constable’s fascination with sky and clouds and his years of residence in Hampstead that I chose to give my book about the area the title “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”.
My book is available from Amazon as a paperback or an e-book:https://www.amazon.co.uk/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ENVIRONS/dp/B09R2WRK92/