In 1824 Constable took his family to Brighton for the summer, for the sake of his wife’s health: ‘we are told we must try the sea’, he wrote to John Fisher on 8 May (Beckett VI, p. 157). Brighton was a popular health resort, which promoted the benefits of sea bathing and even drinking sea water. The sea air was considered to be particularly beneficial for people suffering from consumption. Constable’s feelings for Brighton were mixed. He was critical ofthe crowds of people there, describing Brighton as ‘Piccadilly by the sea-side’, where there were ‘Ladies dressed & undressed – gentlemen in morning gowns & slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers – footmen – children – nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen – preventative service men (with hangers & pistols), rotten fish & those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women, whose language both in oaths & voice resembles men – all are mixed up together in endless & indecent confusion’ (ibid., p. 171). Nonetheless, in his text to the mezzotint, A sea beach, Constable suggested that there was ‘perhaps no spot in Europe’ as Brighton ‘where so many circumstances conducive to health and enjoyment are to be found combined’. And he enthused about the climate and vegetation of the place (Beckett, Discourses, p. 20).
Constable also responded to the visual aspects of the sea and the sky and to the constantly changing light and atmosphere at Brighton and nearby Hove. Apart from visits to Osmington and Weymouth during his honeymoon, Constable’s visits to Brighton and Hove provided the only occasions when he concentrated on sea painting. He produced evocative oil sketches of everyday life on the beach, a number of which have a freshness and luminosity that anticipates the paintings of Eugène Boudin.
Constable painted Brighton Beach with shipping and a gig with a remarkable economy, creating a moody, atmospheric impression of the sea and sky.