Lost Thames view revealed after John Constable painting is restored

Restoration of John Constable’s largest-ever painting reveals long lost view of London’s 19th century skyline: Artwork depicting opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817 is transformed after 270-hour conservation project

  • The masterpiece depicts the scene on the River Thames on second anniversary of Battle of Waterloo in 1817
  • Shows opening of old Waterloo Bridge, which was demolished in 1930s and replaced with current structure
  • Layers of varnish added down the decades dulled the depictions including King George IV’s Royal Barge
  • But National Trust conservators spent 250 hours brightening the painting by removing the layers of varnish 

A long-vanished view of the London skyline has been revealed in all its glory after layers of varnish that had covered John Constable’s largest work were removed following a 270-hour restoration. 

The masterpiece, which is over seven feet long and took 13 years to complete, depicts the scene on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 1817, when the bridge that was built in its honour opened. 

With the passage of time, the view of King George IV’s Royal Barge arriving from Whitehall – as the majestic new Waterloo Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral loomed in the background – became dulled with layers of badly yellowed varnish that obscured its intricate detail. 

But now, thanks to work from experts at the National Trust, 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 decades of development transformed the area. 

The bridge seen in the painting was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with the current structure, which opened in 1942. Now, a photo of the same view shows how modern buildings have largely obscured St Paul’s Cathedral.


A long-vanished view of the London skyline has been revealed in all its glory after layers of varnish that had covered John Constable’s largest work were removed following a 270-hour restoration. The masterpiece (seen above in its restored and unrestored form) depicts the scene on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in 1817, when the bridge that was built in its honour opened

The bridge seen in the painting was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with the current structure, which opened in 1942. Now, a photo of the same view shows how modern buildings have largely obscured St Paul’s Cathedral

Constable’s giant masterpiece was titled Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817. 

It normally hangs in Anglesey Abbey in Cambridge, in a room where the panels and shelves are made from the timber that was used on the piles of the original Waterloo Bridge. 

Constable is believed to have been present when the old Waterloo Bridge was opened by the Prince Regent. As well as creating his large painting, he also produced many sketches of his subject.

The painting was likely inspired by Italian master Canaletto’s scenes of water pageants in Venice. 

As well as showing the bridge and the Royal B, other rowers and members of the King’s court can be seen. Present at the bridge’s opening were George IV himself, along with the 1st Duke of Wellington and the Duke of York.

Another smaller painting of the bridge was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1832. It is now part of the Tate’s collection.  

The old Waterloo Bridge is seen above in a photo that was taken in 1925. The bridge was dismantled in the 1930s after standing since 1817

During its restoration, the National Trust’s conservation experts had to make sure that the chemicals they were using to strip away the varnish did not also affect Constable’s original strokes of paint.   

Senior conservator Sarah Maisey said: ‘This has been a painting which has been dramatically transformed by the conservation treatment,’ said Sarah Maisey, Senior Remedial Conservator for Paintings at the National Trust.

‘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. 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 final result.’

John Chu, curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Trust added: ‘Constable’s painting of Waterloo Bridge, full of the pageantry and colour of urban life, is a significant contrast to the quiet country scenes he is more famous for, such as The Haywain. 

‘This large-scale depiction of modern events and the London metropolis was a big departure at this point in his career. 

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

An X-Ray image of the painting which helped guide National Trust conservators in their work to remove varnish and restore the masterpiece to its former glory

A National Trust conservator at work on John Constable’s largest known painting which shows the opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817

‘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.’ 

Another work on show, an oil sketch titled Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland, has now been acknowledged as being an original Constable work. 

Whilst Constable is an artist whose work is known to be copied and sometimes deliberately faked, clues in the brush work and canvas, along with its relationship to the artist’s other paintings and its ownership history made it clear it is an original. 

A label on the back of the painting is signed by Constable’s son ‘Charles Constable’ and reads: ‘Painted by John Constable R.A.’

Mr Chu added: ‘We can therefore assume the sketch at once stage belonged to Charles Golding Constable himself. 

‘In the sales catalogue of some of his effects in 1869 there is a listing which is almost certainly this painting.

Another work on show, an oil sketch titled Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland, has now been acknowledged as being an original Constable work

‘We are very grateful for the work done by Constable expert Anne Lyles who led to this reattribution and the recognition that this was indeed painted by Constable.’

Although the painting was believed to be an original when it was bought by Anglesey Abbey’s original owner Lord Fairhaven, doubts were later cast on its provenance because it was similar to other known copies.

Art historian Anne Lyles was the first to recognise that the sketch might have been incorrectly attributed.

She said: ‘I thought straightaway this sketch looked “right”; and indeed one giveaway feature helping lead to the reattribution, even before looking at it in the flesh, was the out-turned tacking edge at the top, a way Constable often treated his canvases.

‘I was subsequently invited to Anglesey Abbey to look at the sketch along with the rest of the works there by or attributed to Constable and it became much more clear that this was an original sketch by John Constable.’

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