Constable: The Making of a Master, Victoria and Albert Museum
Let’s hope John Constable had some decent waterproofs. The Duke of Wellington’s boots did not catch on until the 1830s, and Mr Macintosh did not start mass-producing his coats until shortly before Constable’s death in 1836. Umbrellas had been around for a while, but they were both expensive and difficult to fold until 1852 when someone thought to use steel ribs. And so how did Constable and his materials stay dry in the rain? Because there must have been rain: this was England and, as the Victoria and Albert’s current exhibition shows, Constable spent a lot of time outdoors. The museum has picked for its poster backdrop, a scene of white clouds against clement blue sky; inside, however, there is drizzle, rain and storm aplenty. But no snow. Even Constable had his limits.
Down the road, Tate Britain has devoted its autumn show to the end of Turner’s career. And although it would have been poetic if that exhibition had been countered by a V&A display dedicated to early Constable – and the name of the V&A show is open to (mis)interpretation – Constable: The Making of a Master, is not about the painter’s formative years. Rather, this is full-on Constable, a display which includes examples of all types of his work, from all phases of his career. The running theme? How Constable made his art; and if we are being picky, the show’s title might more accurately read, Constable: The Making of a Master’s Art. But that does not have quite the same ring.
Constable-the-Master’s relationship with the original Old Masters is uncomplicated. He admired painters such as Titian, Rubens, Claude and Gainsborough and learnt what he could from them, “No great painters are self-taught,” he wrote. His approach, particularly early on in his career, was hardly subtle. In 1795 the artist had met Sir George Beaumont, who allowed him to scrutinise his collection of Old Master paintings, including, for example, Claude’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (1646). While Claude’s landscape is set somewhere in Italy, Constable had no trouble uprooting the French artist’s concept and replanting it in Suffolk in the form of his 1802 Dedham Vale. But although Constable’s trees are more East Anglian than Italianate, it looks a bit chillier and he has done away with the angel, there can be no mistaking who Constable has been studying. Jacob van Ruisdael was another favourite, mentioned in the artist’s correspondence as early as 1797 and whom Constable continued to regard for the rest of his career. “‘I have seen an affecting picture this morning, by Ruisdael. It haunts my mind and clings to my heart… the whole so true clear & fresh – & as brisk as champagne,” he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1826.
Peering at Rubens and the like, however, was indoor work, and would get the artist only so far. In 1802, turning down the post as drawing master at Great Marlow Military College, Constable determined to stop “running after pictures and seeking the truth second hand,” and return to the great outdoors. While sketching outside, Constable used a full range of materials: chalk, water-colour and graphite each served a purpose, and from 1808 he began to explore out-door oil sketching, a technique he had briefly taken up in 1802. Working on scraps of canvas, mill board or home-made paper and armed with a portable paint box, Constable could work in pasture, meadow or woodland. And there was no need for anything as cumbersome as a table: his oil sketches were made “in the lid of my box on my knees.”
The selection of open-air drawings on display in the V&A exhibition make clear Constable’s intense fascination with nature. While Gainsborough had been happy to put his hand to both landscapes and gentlemen, for Constable, bodices and pearls held no appeal. He saw himself as a student of “natural philosophy” and, according to his nineteenth biographer, C. R. Leslie, viewed painting as a science which, “should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature.” So a cloud would be sketched and re-sketched and then sketched again, as it changed shape, colour or position; and the light reflecting on a pond observed and recorded with precision. “We see nothing till we understand it,” he explained. And from a scientific perspective, Constable gets top marks. His meteorologically accurate rendering of clouds is well known, and he had a similar interest in rainbows. By 1831 when the artist painted Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, he was able to render his rainbow with a scientific precision which had been lacking when he sketched the 1812 Landscape with a double rainbow some twenty years earlier. Not that the Salisbury rainbow is entirely accurate, however, and according to those in the know, Constable deliberately violated the laws of optics in order to allow the rainbow to form its protective arch over the Cathedral.
Two years after Constable’s death, the first photographs were taken; but with Constable and his fastidious observation of the world around him, who needs a camera? Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds (exhibited 1823) was commissioned by Constable’s friend Fisher, who had now become Bishop of Salisbury, in 1820. The painting shows the cathedral from across a water meadow, and at the side of the pool are a group of cows. With the fleeting accuracy of a photograph, Constable has captured the instant when the cow-boss on the left – the “master cow” who must take her drink first – swings her head round, startled at the sight of another cow daring to drink alongside her. The cows, of course, are a Suffolk breed, without a horn between them.
Constable based the Salisbury Cathedral canvas (which is in fact one of three finished versions of the scene) on a series of outdoor oil sketches, drawn while he visited Salisbury in 1820. These fresh-air sketches may not have been full size, but when he came to prepare for his nine large River Stour scenes, Constable would paint a six foot sketch of the scene, two of which – The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse – are on show alongside their finished counterparts. As an exercise in spot-the-difference, The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse duos might be categorised as basic: the differences are hard to miss. Compare, on the other hand, the copies Constable made of Old Master paintings against their Old Master originals, and things are getting more advanced. This practice of copying paintings was widespread amongst artists, not only as a way of improving technique, but also to earn some cash on the replica market. And Constable was good. Claude’s Landscape with Goatherd and Goats (1636-7) received the Constable treatment in 1823, and the artist was pleased with the result, describing it as a “great delight” from which he could “drink at again and again”. There is, however, a discrepancy between van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem (1650-52) and Constable’s 1832 version of the same painting, although the difference has only been there since 1997. It was then that a horse and two figures at the bottom right of van Ruisdael’s picture were removed after analysis showed that they had been added nearly 200 years after the van Ruisdael produced the painting. And who would make such a change? More than likely it was Sir Peter Bourgeois, one of the founders of Dulwich Picture Gallery, who had a penchant for livening up the pictures in his collection. Constable’s painting, based on the altered van Ruisdael work, still includes the extra figures.
That said, Constable himself was not adverse to subsequent touch-ups; but he at least stuck to his own work. Salisbury Cathedral form the Meadows, which the artist saw as his landscape masterpiece, had not been a hit with the public and after its initial display at the Royal Academy in 1831, Constable took it home with him, where the urge to fiddle was too much to bear. Worried that his constant reworking might ruin the picture, friends urged him to channel his yearnings into a mezzotint engraving of the work, which he produced in collaboration with the engraver David Lucas. And although Constable was pleased with the result – “The print is a noble and beautiful thing – entirely improved and entirely made perfect” – his friendship with Lucas was all but destroyed during the process.
The curators were at pains to point out that Constable: The Making of a Master, is not a retrospective, and the thematic structure of the exhibition goes some way to support their claim. For a show which is not a retrospective, however, this exhibition has a very retrospectivey feel, and includes all the components of a major exposition of one of Britain’s favourite painters.