In 1829 John Constable R.A. began work on a series of mezzotint engravings. He did this in collaboration with the engraver David Lucas. The first four were published the following year in 1830. Constable oversaw the production of 23 such mezzotints in his life time, these were collectively titled "Various Subjects of Landscape, characterisitc of English Scenery,". We know them today as Constable's English Landscape scenery. 14 more plates were produced by Lucas after Constable's death and there are other, rarer unpublished prints made by Lucas from Constable's paintings and sketches. (In 1855 the edition was re-published and included these later prints). To enable continued reprinting of the plates, they had been heavily reworked and had lost much of their original quality.
However, prior to that, it was found on his death in 1837 that 186 complete sets of the 23 prints Constable had worked on with Lucas had remained unsold and what happened to these is quite interesting.
John Leslie, a fellow Royal Academician and friend of Constable, arranged with the Constable family to bind each complete set into a book, titled Memoires of the Life of John Constable. This is not only the first Biography of the life of John Constable (published in 1843) but one of the earliest and significant biographies of any artist. It was compiled using a wealth of first hand sources, mainly and most interestingly in the form of letters, within which we can hear Constable's voice directly. It is a large folio to accomodate the un-trimed size of the print pages. 30 of these books were given to the Constable family and the remaining 138 were made availble to collectors. They can now be found in the collections of major galleries and museums around the world. A few remain in private collections. Some, no doubt have been "broken" and the mezzotints sold.
In 2010 Justin Cooke, after years of searching, found a copy in the possession of a San Francisco book dealer.
For 167 years others had looked after it
I had known about the existence of these books since my studies at University, and had heard much of the quality of the prints. As soon as I found it I knew it was not an opportunity to be missed. A week later a parcel arived from the States. I was now the owner of the biography and it's hidden reward. The 23 mezzotints. Immediately I felt the resposibility, for 167 years others had looked after it, for the foreseeable future it was to be under my care.
I already had a later pressing from the 1855 edition, and although I was really attached to it, as it was based on a painting made from a spot that I share with Constable from time to time. I could now see immediately the quality of the earlier prints that Constable himself would have approved. There is a quality mezzotints have that is unobtainable in reproduction. The darks really do have the "velvety blackness" that had been described to me but I had never seen. And the pin-sharp marks of the un-worn plates remains.
Today this folio provides a valuable source for Justin Cooke's research into the life and work of John Constable. Something Justin has continued to study thoughout the 26 years since he left University where his interest in John Constable's work began.
Weymouth bay from the Bohn edition 1855. The deterioration of the plates can be clearly seen
From John Leslie's Memoirs of The Life of John Constable Esq. R.A.
An example of one of the mezzotint prints titled; Weymouth Bay Dorsetshire, and underneath, the artists address at Fitzroy Suare, London as well as the date of publication date 1830. The detail of the sky and sea as portrayed in the turbulent clouds and waves is particularlly clear and key to the drama of this scene.
Old Sarum. a mezzotint published by Constable in 1832, and later bound into John Leslie's book, Memoirs of The Life of John Constable. Esq. R.A.
Click on the images below to see a pop up gallery of some details.