A painting by John Constable, depicting the opening of Waterloo Bridge in 1817, has been conserved by the National Trust and returned to display at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire as part of a celebration of the artist’s works housed in the property’s collection.
The Embarkation of George IV from Whitehall: the Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1817 is the largest known painting by English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837), and records the scene on the second anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Likely taking inspiration from Italian artist Canaletto’s water pageants in Venice, the painting shows rowers assembled around their barges (which includes the Royal Barge) near Whitehall, ready to depart for the opening of the new bridge.
Experts at the National Trust’s Royal Oak Foundation Conservation Studio in Kent spent over 270 hours removing thick layers of badly yellowed varnish to reveal bright blue skies and details of a long-lost view of the early 19th-century Thames skyline.
The jubilant scene shows the waterfront before the construction of the Embankment and numerous Victorian buildings that arose alongside it. Waterloo Bridge itself is different, having been replaced with a concrete structure in 1942.
‘There were challenges,’ said Sarah Maisey, Senior Remedial Conservator for Paintings at the National Trust. ‘It had been painted, and varnished, at different stages so care had to be taken to ensure that the solvents being used to thin and remove the varnish layers didn’t also affect the paint layer.’
‘We are delighted with the final result,’ Maisey added.
It is very plausible that Constable was present at the opening of Waterloo Bridge, as it the subject of many of his sketches.
However, the painting was never displayed during Constable’s lifetime.
According to John Chu, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the National Trust: ‘It passed through a number of hands before being bought by Cara, Lady Fairhaven and given to her son, Urban Huttleston Broughton, Lord Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey.’
Now, returned to its former glory, the work is once again on show at Anglesey Abbey. It is highlighted as part of ‘Constable Revealed’, a celebration of the artist’s works housed in the National Trust property.
A small oil sketch (10 x 15 cm) titled Summer Evening, Stoke-by-Nayland – only recently recognised as an original Constable work – is also on display.
You can find out more information and book a visit to Anglesey Abbey at the following link: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/angleseyabbey.