Constable painted this work for his friend and patron, Dr John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury. The Bishop is shown in the left foreground pointing out the sunlit Cathedral to his wife, as one of their daughters, Dorothea, advances along the path towards her parents. And as C.R. Leslie noted, Constable included the Suffolk, hornless variety of cow in the grounds (Leslie (1843/45) 1951, p. 96).
Constable painted a magical work, a sylvan vista of the Cathedral, viewed from the south-west, with an arch of trees framing the spire. It ranks as one of his major paintings. He captured the light on the foliage, and conveyed the air and atmosphere of a summer morning. He wrote: ‘Does not the Cathedral look beautiful amongst the Golden foliage? its silvery grey must sparkle in it’ (Beckett VI, p. 78).
During a visit to Salisbury in 1811 Constable made three drawings of the Cathedral: from the south-east, from the south-west and from the east end. He used the view from the south-west as the compositional basis for his later paintings in oil. He made further drawings, and an open-air oil sketch of the Cathedral and its surroundings (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), while in Salisbury during July and August 1820 when he stayed with the Bishop’s nephew, his friend Archdeacon John Fisher.
In 1823 Constable painted this enlarged version of the scene. It was his most important exhibit at the 1823 Royal Academy exhibition. One critic suggested that ‘the landscape and cows are extremely well managed; and speak of that rich fat country ever to be found about the church’; he remarked that ‘there is great merit in the picture’ and compared it to the work of Hobbema (The London Magazine, June 1823, cit. Ivy 1991, p. 100). Another critic, Robert Hunt, suggested that Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral is so pre-eminent in that “prime cheerer, light”’ (The Examiner, 23 June 1823, cit. Ivy 1991, p. 101).
Constable wrote to Fisher after the Academy’s opening on 9 May commenting:
My Cathedral looks very well. Indeed I got through that job uncommonly well considering how much I dreaded it. It is much approved by the Academy and moreover in Seymour St. [the Bishop’s London residence] though I was at one time fearfull that it would not be a favourite there owing to a dark cloud – but we got over the difficulty … It was the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had on my easil. I have not flinched at the work, of the windows, buttresses, &c, &c, but I have as usual made my escape in the evanescence of the chiaroscuro (Beckett VI, p. 115).
But the passing storm clouds over the Cathedral spire that gave movement and contrast to the scene were never appreciated by the Bishop. In a letter to Constable of 16 October 1823, Fisher recorded the thoughts of his uncle: ‘[If] Constable would but leave out his black clouds! Clouds are only black when it is going to rain. In fine weather the sky is blue’ (Beckett VI, p. 138). The Bishop may have thought that in presenting the Cathedral under a cloud, Constable had created an actual and a metaphorical image of the Church that reflected the changing times and the onslaught of radical ideas. As Michael Rosenthal has suggested, ‘a painting of Salisbury Cathedral is more than just a portrayal of architecture’ (Rosenthal 1983, p. 146).
Constable was prepared to invent or change his skies. Later in 1823 he painted a smaller, sunnier version of the subject for the Bishop as a wedding present for his daughter, Elizabeth (Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino), with ‘a more serene sky’ (Beckett VI, p. 125).
In July 1824 the Bishop asked Constable to repaint the sky in this work, but rather than do so he decided to paint a second version for the Bishop, a full-scale replica with a sunnier sky, and with the trees thinned out and no longer meeting in an arch above the Cathedral spire (now in The Frick Collection, New York). Constable had not finished this new version by the time of the Bishop’s death on 8 May 1825, after which he sent it to the Bishop’s widow; and he sent this original 1823 version to the Bishop’s nephew, his friend John Fisher. As Reynolds has observed, the latter was presumably a sale as Constable repurchased the picture in 1829 when Fisher was so hard pressed for money that he had to relinquish the work he greatly admired. He had written to Constable on 1 July 1826 that:
The Cathedral looks splendidly over the chimney piece. The picture requires a room full of light. Its internal splendour comes out in all its power, the spire sails away with the thunder-clouds (ibid., p. 222).