In the summer of 1810, Constable painted an altarpiece for his aunt Martha Smith's local church at Nayland, a village on the Stour River several miles west of Constable's home in East Bergholt. In connection with that commission, or in the course of visiting his aunt, he would have passed by the neighboring village of Stoke-by-Nayland, with its Perpendicular church of Saint Mary the Virgin. A sketchbook (Musée du Louvre, Paris) that Constable used in Suffolk and Essex between about July 1810 and August 1811 contains three drawings relating to the present oil sketch. A fourth, a much larger and more literal study of the landscape, is mounted in the Exeter album (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter). Evidently earlier in style, it was assigned by Graham Reynolds (1996) to 1805.
Two variants are in London: one, belonging to the Tate (NO1819), is a little less blond and includes a woman balancing a bundle on her head; the other, on paper, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, also has the woman with the bundle but is dark in overall tone. The former, like the present work, dates to 1810 or 1811; the latter may have been made in 1829–30 in preparation for Various Subjects of Landscape, Characteristic of English Scenery
, mezzotints after some of Constable's most important paintings that were engraved under his supervision by David Lucas. A proof by Lucas, extensively retouched by Constable, is in The Met’s collection (27.4.18
; see Additional Images, fig. 1). In 1836 Constable took up the view again in a full-scale oil sketch now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
As Graham Reynolds pointed out (1983), Constable took the canvas off the original stretcher and folded it out at the left, widening it by slightly more than an inch. Four original tack holes are visible, and a slight change in the color of the ground marks what had at first been the edge of the paint surface. Although flattened in an old relining, the picture is otherwise in good state, boldly painted, with highlights of blue and white and dense, glossy black strokes for the trunks and thicker branches of the trees and for a figure standing in deep shadow in the roadway. This small picture is not a rough sketch after nature but a highly cogitated work of art.
[2012; adapted from Baetjer 2009]