The subject of this plate was, according to Constable, desolation. He thought that ‘the present appearance of Old Sarum – wild, desolate, dreary – contrasts with its former greatness’; and that because of its ‘barren and deserted character’ the grander phenomena of nature were best suited to capture such a scene:
Sudden and abrupt appearance of light, thunder clouds … even conflicts of the elements, to heighten, if possible, the sentiment which belongs to a subject so awful and impressive (Beckett, Discourses, p. 24).
Nonetheless, he contrasted this ‘barren and desolate’ scene with its coexisting pastoral innocence, by placing a shepherd and his flock in the foreground.
Lucas may have begun working on this plate in the autumn of 1831, when Constable told him to keep it ‘clear, bright, and sharp, but don’t lose the solemnity’; but he did little work on it until 20 November 1832 (Beckett IV, pp. 358, 388). He based it on the drawing of this subject and the oil sketch (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), both of 1829. Lucas made at least three progress proof variations before the published state.
C.R. Leslie suggested that Constable had not liked the first plate because he thought the ‘mounds and terraces were not marked with sufficient precision’, and had thus asked Lucas to engrave a fresh plate (Leslie (1843/45) 1951, p. 196). In the second plate Lucas increased the chiaroscuro and drama of the subject.
Heysen wrote: ‘I am particularly impressed with … “Old Sarum”. The news of the … Old Sarum … excited me and you may be sure I shall await their arrival with impatience’ (Heysen, 1947?, NLA MS5073/1/2283); and
The second plate of the Old Sarum is absolutely magnificent – it excites me every time I have a ‘peep’. This subject has always appealed to me immensely and Lucas’s treatment comes up to a ‘red hot point’ – I think it also must have excited him tremendously – and this is a lovely print – quite complete – and so rich … (ibid., 23 February 1948, NLA MS 5073/1/5594).