Constable painted this impressive late watercolour while staying with Lord Egremont at Petworth in September 1834. He painted it with a free and impressionistic approach using strong blues, yellows and pink, with which he demonstrated his ability to capture the immediate sensations of light and atmosphere. He depicted the scene cut off at the edges, from a close-up position, in a semi abstract fashion. In doing so he created an image of the ruins quite distinct from those of contemporaries such as John Sell Cotman, and with a ‘modern’ aspect, closer to the work of more recent British artists like John Piper.
C.R. Leslie, who visited the ruins of Cowdray with Constable, recorded that on his return to Petworth Constable ‘filled a large book with sketches in pencil and water colours’ (Leslie (1843/45) 1951, p. 236). This watercolour is from that sketchbook.
Lord Egremont, with that unceasing attention which he always paid to whatever he thought would be most agreeable to his guests, ordered one of his carriages to be ready every day, to enable Constable to see as much of the neighbourhood as possible. He passed a day in company with Mr. and Mrs. Philllips [Thomas Phillips RA] and myself, among the beautiful ruins of Cowdry Castle, of which he made several fine sketches (ibid., pp. 235–36).
The ruins of Cowdray House are located on the edge of Midhurst in West Sussex. It was built in the early sixteenth century on the site of an earlier building. In 1542, following the Dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church, Henry VIII awarded the house to Sir Anthony Browne. Browne’s son was an important man in the court of Elizabeth I, and hosted the queen at Cowdray with great banquets and entertainments that lasted for days. In 1793, while owned by the 8th Viscount Montague, a descendant of Browne’s, Cowdray burned to the ground, leaving the ruins.