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'The Ascension' is the best of only three religious paintings by John Constable, all of which were commissioned for churches in his native Stour Valley. It was commissioned in 1821, the year that he completed 'The Hay Wain', as an altarpiece for St Michael’s Church, Manningtree. The other two earlier works were painted for the parish churches of Brantham in Suffolk and Nayland in Essex.
From the very beginning, the painting had a somewhat chequered career. It was commissioned by Edward Alston, a brewer from Manningtree and Constable’s cousin by marriage, for £200, in order to gain favour with the Archdeacon of Colchester, the Reverend John Jefferson, who was responsible for licencing public houses. Jefferson refused to license Alston’s hostelries and died in December 1821; Alston reneged on the contract at a great loss to Constable. In spite of the financial loss, Constable did complete the painting although the lower half shows less commitment than the upper. It was installed in 1822 in the reredos of the newly built chancel of St Michael’s where it remained until the church was demolished in 1965.
The painting was acquired by Reverend Aubrey Moody for All Saints’, Feering, a village which Constable knew through his friendship with Moody’s predecessor, the Reverend Walter Wren Driffield. The painting stayed at Feering until the PCC were faced with the expense of renewing the heating system. After much heart-searching, the painting was offered to museums in Ipswich and London. They found difficulties, however, in hanging a religious painting beside the fresh immediacy of Constable’s landscapes. Fortunately, the painting failed to find a buyer at auction and the Constable Trust was formed in order to buy it and return it to the area for which it was painted.
The Trustees of The Constable Trust were honoured to be asked to lend 'The Ascension' to the major Constable exhibition in Paris at the end of 2002, but it has reverted to permanent display in Dedham church as the most appropriate setting for this particular painting.
St Mary's Church
oil on canvas
H 160 x W 127 cm