Artist’s largest painting displayed back in Cambridgeshire in its full glory

Rehanging: The largest known painting by John Constable RA has been transformed after over 270 hours

The largest known painting by John Constable RA has been enhanced after over 270 hours of treatment by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust / James Dobson

An artist’s largest known painting which was never exhibited in his lifetime, has been brought back to its full glory in Cambridgeshire after over 270 hours of work by National Trust conservators. 

The painting, the 'Embarkation of George 1V from Whitehall: The opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817' by John Constable has returned on display at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire as part of ‘Constable Revealed’, a celebration of the artist’s collection of works. 

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable.

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable.

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

The National Trust’s Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio in Kent has spent over 270 hours conserving the painting, which has enhanced its appearance. 

Now showing remarkable detail, the painting reveals how the Thames waterfront has been enhanced in the past 200 years. 

It records the scene on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and goes back on show alongside an oil-painting of a Suffolk village.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable.

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable.

Conservation cleaning of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

Sarah Maisey, senior remedial conservator for paintings at the National Trust, said: “There had been some earlier tests which showed that this painting would respond really well to varnish removal but it has been a particular delight to see the quality of the improvement.” 

Several layers of badly yellowed varnish had obscured the detail and turned the painting into a very dulled view of the 19th century Thames. 

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Now, with most of the old varnish layers removed, the scene has been transformed to show bright blue skies and a view of the early Thames skyline with details of what the river was like before the Victorian development alongside it. 

Curators at the National Trust examine the largest known painting by artist John Constable.

Curators at the National Trust examine the largest known painting by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

Curators at the National Trust examine the largest known painting by artist John Constable.

Curators at the National Trust examine the largest known painting by artist John Constable. - Credit: National Trust

Sarah added: “There were challenges. It had been painted and varnished at different stages so care had to be taken to ensure that the solvents being used to thin and remove the varnish layers didn’t also affect the paint layer. 

“We are delighted with the result.” 

Influenced by Canaletto’s water pageants, the painting of Waterloo Bridge normally hangs in the library at the abbey, where the panels and shelves are made from timber salvaged from the piles of the original Waterloo Bridge. 

The painting itself shows the Royal Barge and many others gathered near Whitehall, about to set off for the opening of the new Waterloo Bridge. 

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

Conservators believe it is very likely that Constable was present at the bridge when it was opened by Prince Regent and that he subsequently created many sketches of the subject. 

The cleaning of the painting and the clarity that has resulted shows clearly how the scene painted by Constable is in marked contrast to the scene today, with almost none of what appears in the original painting remaining. 

Curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Trust, John Chu, said: “This large-scale depiction of modern events and the Londo metropolis was a big departure at this point in Constable’s career. 

“The Opening of Waterloo Bridge remained in his studio for the rest of his life. 

“It passed through a number of hands before being bought by Cara, Lady Fairhaven and given to her son, Urban Huttleston Broughton, Lord Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey, a collector with a good eye for pictures. 

“He displayed it in the library at Anglesey Abbey where it has now returned.” 

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning by National Trust conservators. - Credit: National Trust

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

The largest known painting by John Constable has been enhanced after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning. - Credit: National Trust

Also on show is a small oil sketch called ‘Summer Evening, Stoke-by Nayland' which has been acknowledged as an original Constable work. 

Clues in the brushwork and canvas, its relationship to other paintings he was doing at about the same time and its history of ownership made it clear it is an original. 

John Chu said they had always known the painting had a strong provenance but that had not presented earlier doubts about who had created it. 

“There’s a label on the back signed by Constable’s son ‘Charles Constable’ which reads ‘Painted by John Constable R.A’,” he said. 

“We can therefore assume the sketch as one stage belonged to Charles himself.” 

An X-Ray image of the painting which helped National Trust conservators in their 270 hour conservation project.

An X-Ray image of the painting which helped National Trust conservators in their 270 hour enhancement project. - Credit: National Trust

The largest known painting by John Constable has been transformed after over 270 hours of conservation cleaning.

What the Thames skyline looks like now compared to artist John Constable's 1817 painting. - Credit: National Trust

What the Thames skyline looks like now compared to artist John Constable's 1817 painting.

What the Thames skyline looks like now compared to artist John Constable's 1817 painting. - Credit: National Trust

He added: “In the sales catalogue of some of his effects there in 1869, there is a listing which is almost certainly this painting.” 

The works highlighted as part of Constable Revealed at Anglesey Abbey can be seen during normal opening hours from April 29. 

More information is available on Anglesey Abbey’s website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/anglesey-abbey-gardens-and-lode-mill

Lord Fairhaven, who gave Anglesey Abbey and its collection to the National Trust.

Lord Fairhaven, who gave Anglesey Abbey and its collection to the National Trust. - Credit: National Trust

The original painting of artist John Constable's small oil sketch called 'Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland

The original painting of artist John Constable's small oil sketch called 'Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland, which is also on display at Anglesey Abbey. - Credit: National Trust

Artist John Constable's small oil sketch called 'Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland, is also on display at Anglesey Abbey.

Artist John Constable's small oil sketch called 'Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland, is also on display at Anglesey Abbey. - Credit: National Trust