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John Constable R.A. at Gillingham

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

In the Museum at Gillingham, Dorset there is a touch screen display which tells of the association of John Constable RA with the town. Five oil paintings by him of the area are reproduced at as near to their original size as possible, together with four pencil sketches.

How did John Constable come to be in Gillingham?

In 1811 Dr John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, first introduced his nephew, John Fisher (born 1788) to John Constable, following which he became the artist's closest friend, providing moral and financial support whenever they were needed - even to the extent of purchasing works which he could ill afford. In 1816 he officiated at Constable's marriage at St Martin in the Fields, London, following which the Constables spent a six-week honeymoon with Fisher and his wife at Osmington, on the Dorset coast. On 26 April 1819 John Fisher became Vicar of Gillingham, Dorset. It was as a result of Fisher's close friendship with Constable that the artist was persuaded to visit Gillingham in 1820 and again in 1823. Further invitations to visit were pressed on him by Fisher but these never materialised.

Gillingham Bridge, Dorset,1823

From the collection of the Tate, London.

Constable originally painted this picture for John Fisher to purchase as a present for his mother, but it is unlikely that the sale ever took place as the painting was bequeathed to the nation by Constable's daughter Isabel on her death in 1888. Interestingly, the work depicts the Church tower without the small spire on the top which certainly existed in 1820 and which appears in Constable's drawing "Entrance to Gillingham" which he made on his visit that year. It also shows - partly hidden amongst the trees - part of the old Vicarage and the rear of the property fronting on to Queen Street now known as The Barton and formerly the premises of Shephard Bros, tailors.

The mill known today as Purns Mill was formerly known as Parham's Mill from an earlier owner, Matthew Parham, although in the 19th century at least it was also known as Perne's Mill. Constable probably first saw the building during his 1820 visit; certainly in subsequent correspondence with John Fisher he several times expressed his desire to come back "to do something at the mill we went to, that famous mill a mile or two off". In a letter to his wife dated 29 August 1823 Constable records that he had made "one or two attacks on an old mill" which probably is a reference to the studies (pencil or oil sketches) which would have formed the bases for his later studio works depicting Parham's Mill.

Parham's Mill, Gillingham

From the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England

Constable is known to have completed four oil sketches/paintings of Parham's Mill, three from the elevation shown here and one other from a different angle.

A very similar copy in private ownership was stolen in 1982, and as it has never been recovered, we are only able to reproduce it in black and white at the museum.

The Yale Centre for British Art in USA has the mill picture which is rated as Constable's best effort on the subject. The work is very similar to his two earlier studies of Purns (Parham's) Mill executed in 1823 and 1824 respectively. In this painting however donkeys and ducks have been added, a gable has been inserted at the right of the roof and the chimneys are altered. One further difference is that Mere church appears in the distance. This work, which Constable considered to be one of his best pictures, was painted for a Mrs Hand of Richmond, Surrey (a friend of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Salisbury) and was exhibited by Constable at the Royal Academy in 1826 along with another work under the title of "Landscape", known nowadays as "The Cornfield".

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a painting depicting Purns (Parham's) Mill from a different angle than that shown in Constable's other studies of the same subject. It was presumably based on a now lost drawing or oil sketch made in the open air in either 1820 or 1823, although some experts believe that a work of such high quality could only have been produced from direct observation of the subject. The work, which was exhibited by Constable at the Royal Academy in 1827, may have originated in a commission from John Fisher's lawyer John Pern Tinney, a native of Gillingham, who apparently had a family connection with Purns Mill . The commission, which was for two large upright landscape paintings, unfortunately was never carried out, thus depriving Gillingham of at least one further Constable painting.

This article is taken from research by John Flashman.

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