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The John Constable collection at Anglesey Abbey

Constable Waterloo Bridge painting being put back up on the wall at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Constable Waterloo Bridge painting returns to Anglesey | © National Trust/James Dobson

John Constable is widely regarded as one of the greatest English landscape painters, comparable only to his contemporary and rival J.M.W. Turner. Anglesey Abbey is home to a small yet significant collection of Constable’s work. The works range from early oil paintings of local landscapes to his largest ever canvas, Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, which has returned home to Anglesey Abbey, following conservation. Find out how you can see it along with a number of others within the collection.

See Constable's largest painting

Restored to its former glory, this remarkable painting is now back on show since returning from the Royal Oak Conservation Studio at Knole, Kent.

Anglesey Abbey is a home rather than a gallery, giving a sense of the kinds of spaces in which Constable’s 19th-century patrons enjoyed his art. Ongoing research, analysis and conservation of this little-known collection continues to reveal new dimensions of Constable’s practice.

Conservation of Constable waterloo Bridge Painting at Knole Conservation Studio. Painting from Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Conservation of Constable Waterloo Bridge painting at Knole Conservation Studio | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Revealing Constable’s practice

George IV (then Prince Regent) embarked from the steps of Whitehall in a royal barge, crossing the Thames to open Waterloo Bridge in 1817, on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Constable probably witnessed the ceremony, making pencil sketches of the scene that year.

This version of the subject, The Opening of Waterloo Bridge within Anglesey Abbey's Constable collection, has long puzzled art historians. Was it an abandoned attempt at a finished painting, a full-scale preparatory oil sketch, or a combination of the two?

Removal of discoloured varnish exposed lively mark-making, suggesting an artist working at pace across large areas. The improvements to the painting’s appearance are so dramatic, it almost looks like a different time of day or season. The texture of the paint surface and details can also be seen much more clearly.

Our understanding of our collections is constantly evolving. New imaging technologies could further our understanding of this painting in the future.

'This particular work has perplexed art historians for quite a long time. We’re hoping this conservation treatment will actually go some way towards answering some of those questions.'

- Sarah Maisey, Senior Remedial Paintings Conservator

Rediscovering Constable

World-renowned Constable expert, Anne Lyles, has worked with the National Trust to reattribute the sketch, Summer Evening, Stoke-By-Nayland, to Constable. Purchased by Lord Fairhaven as a genuine Constable, the painting was later catalogued as ‘after’ Constable and disappeared from Constable scholarship. Constable has often been imitated and his children painted in a similar style, making it very difficult to identify works by the artist himself.

Compelling evidence now suggests this work is genuine. Constable used scraps of canvas for sketches, untacking the cloth from its stretcher and incorporating the holes into the body of the painting. This can be seen along the top of the canvas. This sketch is believed to have belonged to the artist’s son, Charles Constable, and can almost certainly be identified in a sale catalogue of his father’s belongings in 1869. These clues have helped identify this work as genuine, reestablishing its place in Constable’s legacy.

Constable Revealed online exhibition

You can explore the collection in an online exhibition. Come face-to-face with the recently restored exhibition centrepiece, Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: The Opening of Waterloo Bridge.

Explore the online exhibition

Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817, John Constable, RA (East Bergholt 1776, London 1837). Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

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