Old Sarum is an ancient mound one and a half miles north of Salisbury. It was an Iron Age hillfort, later occupied by the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans. The Normans built a castle within the perimeter of the mound and a cathedral below it, but disputes between soldiers and priests, plus inadequate water supplies, led to the building of New Sarum (the present city of Salisbury) in 1226. The cathedral was dismantled and a new one built at Salisbury, and the old settlement began to fade away.
In Constable’s time Old Sarum was still an impressive feature on the skyline to the north of Salisbury, but to Constable it was a desolate and deserted place. He described it as a ‘once proud and populous city… traced but by vast embankments’ that had become a barren waste, ‘tracked only by sheepwalks’, and that ‘every vestige of human habitation, [had] long since passed away’ (Beckett, Discourses, pp. 24–25). Constable depicted a solitary shepherd in the foreground, in front of an expansive open plain and the mound of Old Sarum beyond. He presented the scene under a dramatic and powerful sky, with light breaking through the ‘dark, cold and grey’ thunder clouds, suggesting ‘the grander phenomena of Nature’ (ibid.).
This is one of Constable’s most significant watercolours, and the first work of the kind that he ever showed at a Royal Academy exhibition (in 1834 under the title ‘The Mound of the City of Old Sarum, from the south’). It is ambitious in scope and reveals Constable as a master of the watercolour medium. He conceived it as an exhibition piece, uniting his direct personal vision of landscape with a broader, historical idea suggesting destruction and oblivion. Constable captioned the Lucas mezzotint of this subject: ‘here we have no continuing city’.