Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817
John Constable, RA (East Bergholt 1776 – London 1837)
Oil painting on canvas, Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817, by John Constable, RA (East Bergholt 1776 – London 1837), c.1820-32. The painting commemorates the opening of Waterloo Bridge and the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo which took place on 18 June 1817. From a quay at Whitehall Stairs the Prince Regent and his entourage are shown about to board the royal barge, destined for Waterloo Bridge. At left is 5 Whitehall Yard, the bow-fronted house with spectators on its balconies. Waterloo Bridge traverses the Thames in the middle distance; a salute has been fired and caused smoke to billow from the centre of the bridge. St Paul's Cathedral is beyond the bridge at right.
In this large painting, measuring 245 cm in width (nearly eight feet), Constable shows the ceremonial opening of the first Waterloo Bridge built across the River Thames in London, designed by John Rennie. The opening took place on the second anniversary of the famous battle, on 18 June 1817, and proved a highly popular and festive occasion. Crowds of spectators lined both banks of the river, whilst others managed to hire places on the upper floors or roofs of buildings on the north side. Some of these spectators can be seen on the upper left of Constable’s painting watching the events unfolding immediately below on Whitehall Stairs. Here the Prince Regent, accompanied by escorts of Foot Guards, Horse Guards and representatives of the Navy, is about to embark onto one of the colourful royal barges awaiting him. He then made the short river journey to the southern end of the bridge (shown in Constable’s painting on the far right) and, upon landing there, marched across the bridge – lined for the occasion with Waterloo veterans – with the Dukes of York and Wellington. Salutes were fired both as the Royal cortège took off from Whitehall Stairs (indeed Constable shows a trail of gun smoke emerging from the bridge in the distance) and also as the Prince and his party moved in procession along the bridge. When, in around 1819-20, Constable first decided to start tackling this festive urban subject, it marked a departure from the essentially pastoral, Suffolk scenes he had painted to date. There are various reasons, however, to explain why he might have been attracted to such an apparently uncharacteristic subject. As a patriot and royalist, he would have been interested in the event in it’s own right, and indeed he is thought to have witnessed the day’s proceedings as evidenced by some pencil sketches he almost certainly made on that day (Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vols, New Haven and London, 1984, nos 17.5-7). He may also have hoped that the Prince Regent might purchase any painting he might complete of the subject, especially given his own father-in-law Charles Bicknell was solicitor to the Prince. Moreover, now settled permanently in London following his marriage to Maria Bicknell, Constable may have wanted to take on the challenge of painting the city’s famous river, and in particular a ‘historical’ landscape which might recall, for example, the eighteenth-century Thames pageant scenes painted by the famous Venetian artist Canaletto. However, the unfamiliar subject matter caused Constable no end of difficulty, and indeed it was to take him thirteen years to bring the subject to completion with the definitive version he sent to the Royal Academy in 1832 (Tate Britain T04904; Graham Reynolds, op.cit 1984, no.32.1). When exploring his ideas for the subject between 1819 and 1831 he made many preparatory studies and sketches, in oils, pencil and pen and ink. During these years, he also made frequent references in his letters to his work on – and difficulties with – the subject, albeit it is not easy to correlate his written references with specific sketches as some of his comments are ambiguous and, of course, he may have made further sketches which are now lost. Moreover, his ideas of how to treat the subject changed over the years. We know, for example, that he originally planned to paint it from a much higher viewpoint (Graham Reynolds, op. cit, 1984, nos R.19.24 and R.19.22; and Sothebys, Old Masters, 6 December 2017, lot 51). On the advice of artist Joseph Farington he subsequently decided to lower his viewpoint, producing two new sketches showing the scene from a level closer to the embarkation point at Whitehall Stairs (Graham Reynolds, op.cit, 1984, nos R.19.23 and 19.25). At some point Constable must have consulted these two new studies when painting the Anglesey Abbey version, albeit the view in the Fairhaven picture is taken from a slightly more distant position. Meanwhile, exactly when Constable started painting the Anglesey Abbey version itself is also uncertain, as the artist refers in his correspondence to having started two, apparently different, large versions of the composition on two separate occasions, one in 1820 and the other in 1825 (John Constable’s Correspondence VI, The Fishers, ed. R.B. Beckett, Ipswich, Suffolk, 1968, p.56; and John Constable’s Correspondence IV, Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists, ed. R.B. Beckett, Ipswich, Suffolk, 1966, p.243). We do know, however, that the Anglesey Abbey picture must have been started, and mainly painted, before 1826 as – unlike the 1832 exhibited picture now in Tate Britain – it does not include the tall, white cylindrical shot tower built in 1826 for the manufacture of lead shot. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1826, Constable managed to secure access to a viewpoint slightly further back from that used for the Anglesey Abbey painting. It was from this newly obtained position, from the terrace of Pembroke House, that Constable was to base his definitive view of the scene, the one shown at the Academy in 1832 which – as well as showing a viewpoint further back than the Anglesey Abbey painting - also reverts to a slightly higher viewpoint. When planning this second version of the composition on a large scale Constable, ever methodical in his working methods, made two new preparatory sketches on half the scale of the intended finished painting (Graham Reynolds, op cit 1984, nos 29.63 and 29.64). The final painting, exhibited in 1832, measures about 218 cm wide (just over 7 feet), thus a little smaller than the Anglesey Abbey painting. This leaves the question as to what role the Anglesey Abbey painting was intended to serve in the evolution of the final composition. Is the Fairhaven picture an abandoned earlier version of the final picture? Or might Constable have started painting it with the intention of its serving rather as a full-scale compositional sketch of the sort he so often painted for his other large exhibition pictures? The recent cleaning of the Anglesey Abbey painting helps throw valuable light on this question. Before cleaning, the painting could only be assessed through a layer of discoloured varnish which tended to give it a more unified look than it now has, suggesting it might have been an abandoned picture. Now that the painting has been cleaned, not only is it much brighter and fresher but Constable’s brushwork is much clearer to ‘read’, displaying an overall ‘sketchiness’ that is more consistent with the painting’s interpretation as a full-scale compositional study. Whether started in 1820 or 1825, it seems that Constable continued to use the Anglesey Abbey painting as if it were a full-scale sketch right up to the early 1830s (and thus no doubt in the evolution of the final, Tate version). For Sarah Cove observed that the canvas was extensively reworked by Constable using some of his later, brighter pigments, (Anne Lyles (ed), Constable, The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London, 2006, no.65, p.187), something confirmed by conservation scientists during the picture’s recent cleaning. Anne Lyles 2022
Bequeathed to the National Trust by Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven (1896-1966) with the house and the rest of the contents.
Anglesey Abbey, The Fairhaven Collection (National Trust)
Makers and roles
John Constable, RA (East Bergholt 1776 – London 1837), artist
Sutton 1955: Denys Sutton, ‘Constable’s “Whitehall Stairs”, or “The Opening of Waterloo Bridge”, Connoisseur, CXXXVI, 1955, pp.249-55 Reynolds 1984: Graham Reynolds, The Later Paintings and Drawings of John Constable, 2 vols, New Haven and London 1984, no. 32.2, p. 234. Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991: Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exh.cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1991, pp. 369-71. Constable, Le Choix de Lucian Freud, exh.cat, Grand Palais, Paris 2002, no. 107 and pp. 172-5. Lyles 2006: Anne Lyles (ed.), Constable, The Great Landscapes, exh.cat., Tate Britain, London 2006, no. 65, and pp. 185-7.