The two remaining towers of Hadleigh Castle, in the English county of Essex, overlook the Thames Estuary. John Constable first sketched the site in 1814, writing to his wife Maria of its “melancholy grandeur,” but did return to the subject until fourteen years later. Noting Constable’s “determined avoidance of heroic elements of the picturesque” and “affectionate embrace of the seemingly commonplace features of rural life,” Angus Trumble of the Yale Center for British Art proposes that Constable “…may have been prompted toward the unusually dramatic subject, with its hints at decay and regeneration, by the death from tuberculosis of his beloved wife in November 1828, but it seems that his election, at long last, in February 1829 to full membership of the Royal Academy may also have led Constable to consider the advantages of exhibiting a subject more conventionally picturesque and heroic than might otherwise have attracted him.”
The effect of man made fortifications succumbing to nature, which Constable achieves in Hadleigh Castle, owes much to the meteorological observations that he began on moving to Hampstead in the early 1820s. Informed by Luke Howard’s pioneering work on the classification of clouds, Constable made numerous oil sketches of the sky, working directly from nature in open air. In an era when landscape painters relied upon pictorial references, even adjusting their palettes to emulate the patina of aged oil paintings, it was Constable’s commitment to the truth of nature that made his work revolutionary for its time.