Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Hadleigh Castle and the Tradition of the British Landscape

The iconic landscape painting Hadleigh Castle shows a departure from the idyllic country scenes usually favored by John Constable. Following a period of great changes in Constable’s life – the death of his wife Maria and his election to the Royal Academy – Hadleigh Castle shows us a dilapidated, ruined structure, set off by the thundering clouds in the sky. In this article, Singulart will be examining the composition of Constable’s dramatic piece, and discussing how the painting is possibly Constable’s clearest marriage of nature and emotion.

Hadleigh Castle and Constable

The real Hadleigh Castle is located in Essex, almost 150 feet above the Thames near Southend-on-Sea. The castle is one of the four “Royal Castles” of the eastern counties, built for national security during the reign of Henry III. The most prominent part of the ruins are the two circular towers, located about sixty feet apart. Little else remains of the masonry of the structure.

Portrait of Constable, painter of Hadleigh Castle, as a young man.
Portrait of Constable as a young man.

In a letter to his future wife Maria in 1814, Constable wrote, “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland and looking many miles to sea.” Constable quickly sketched the scene before him, and this would form the basis for Hadleigh Castle. Though the painting was completed after Maria’s death, Constable’s trip to Hadleigh coincided with one of the low points of their courtship, when they had been forced apart by Constable’s father and Maria’s grandfather. In his letter to Maria, Constable stated that he “was always delighted with the melancholy grandeur of a sea shore”, and it can be assumed that Hadleigh had great personal significance to him, associated with feelings of desolation and misery.

Hadleigh Castle and Composition

The composition of Hadleigh Castle is significantly different from his other paintings, particularly his ‘six foot’ series. The piece has more of a reflective feel compared to the feeling of domesticity evident in works such as The Hay Wain and The Cornfield. With Hadleigh Castle, Constable made a choice to focus on the ruins and destruction of nature rather than the picturesque scenes of the British countryside.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, c.1828-9. Image via The Tate
John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, c.1828-9. Image via The Tate

Primarily, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the two decaying stone structures of Hadleigh Castle. In the romantic movement, ruins are seen as a vanitas: something to remind the viewer that existence is transient and to remind us of the brevity of time. This is especially pertinent when the ruins are of something that was once grand and formidable, as is the case with Hadleigh Castle. The impressive size of Hadleigh Castle is reflected in the figures wandering around the grounds, dwarfed by the huge stone structures.

The clouds, as evident in the majority of Constable’s paintings, are diligently detailed. In an 1821 letter he wrote, “I have done a great deal of skying… That landscape painter who does not make his sky a very material part of his composition, neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids… It will be difficult to name a class of landscape in which the sky is not the key-note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment.” In Hadleigh Castle, Constable has painted cumulus clouds, rolling over the sea after a storm. In contrast to his earlier works, the clouds are painted with shorter, nervous brushstrokes, using a warmer color scheme than seen in his previous work.

How does Constable’s Painting Portray the Relationship Between Nature and Emotion?

Hadleigh Castle differs starkly from Constable’s earlier pieces, and is representative of a transient period in Constable’s life. The melancholy and despair evident in the painting mirror Constable’s state of mind following the death of his wife. We can see the turbulence of Constable’s emotions through the swirling gray clouds over a choppy body of water, and through the crumbling ruins of the castle.

The colors used in the painting are slightly less natural than in Constable’s other works, showing a point where he was beginning to use more artistic liberties in his landscapes rather than idealistic reproductions.

When Constable exhibited the painting, he chose to add a quotation from James Thomson’s poem Summer, from The Seasons:

The desert joys
Wildly, through all his melancholy bounds
Rude ruins glitter; and the briny deep
Seen from some pointed promontory’s top,
Far to the blue horizon’s utmost verge,
Restless, reflects a floating gleam.

The quotation enforces Constable’s view of the ruins as a symbol for melancholy, cementing the emotional metaphoric property of the landscape in Constable’s painting.

Love John Constable and landscape painting? See similar works in Singulart’s Inspired by John Constable collection.

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