Constable made this drawing during his stay of nearly six weeks with Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, in October–November 1823. At this time he also made copies of paintings in Beaumont’s collection by Claude and drawings after Alexander Cozens’s Various Species of Composition of Landscape, in Nature .
He wrote to John Fisher on 2 November: ‘In the dark recesses of these gardens, and at the end of one of the walks, I saw an urn – & bust of Sir Joshua Reynolds – & under it some beautifull verses, by Wordsworth’ (Beckett VI, p. 143). The laying of the first stone of Beaumont’s memorial in honour of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) had been conducted on 30 October 1812, with Joseph Farington and William Owen in attendance (Tate 1976, p. 136). Located in an opening with lime trees on either side creating an arboreal chapel, the memorial reflected Beaumont’s feeling of ‘what England lost when Reynolds died’. In making this drawing, and the related painting (National Gallery, London), Constable was paying tribute to both men.
Constable inscribed in ink on the verso of the drawing Wordsworth’s conception of Beaumont’s sentiments:
Ye Lime-trees rang’d before this Hallowed Urn Shoot forth with lively power at Springs return And be not slow a stately growth to rear Of Pillars branching off from year to year Till ye at length have framed a Darksome Isle Like a recess within that sacred Pile Where Reynolds – mid our countrey’s noblest dead In the last sanctity of fame is laid And worthily within those sacred bounds The excelling Painter sleeps – yet here may I Unblamed upon my patrimonial Grounds Raise this frail tribute to his memory An humble follower of the soothing Art That he professed – attached to him in heart Admiring – loving – and with Grief and Pride Feeling what England lost when Reynolds died
written by Mr. W. Wordsworth / and engraven on the Urn. in the Garden.
These lines by Wordsworth were composed in November 1811 and first published in 1815. Wordsworth composed other inscriptions for the grounds at Coleorton, also published in the 1815 collection of his poems, which he dedicated ‘To Sir George Howland Beaumont, Bart.’
Constable regarded Reynolds highly, and considered he had played a major role in establishing the British School of painting. He admired Reynolds’s Discourses and as early as 1802 had turned to them in formulating his own ideas about art. In 1813 he described Reynolds’s paintings to Maria Bicknell: ‘here is no vulgarity or rawness and yet no want of life or vigor – it is certainly the finest feeling of art that ever existed’ (Beckett II, p. 106).
Constable used this drawing as a basis for the painting of the same subject ten years later (National Gallery, London). Not shown in the drawing, but included in the painting are two pedestals with the busts of Raphael and Michelangelo, which are part of the memorial in the grounds of Coleorton Hall (Ivy 1991, p. 215).