All-weather Constable

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.

Study of Cirrus Clouds (1822), John Constable &copy V&A

Study of Cirrus Clouds (c.1822), John Constable, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Real-Time Turner

Late Turner – Painting Set Free, Tate Britain

Turner did not take much of a retirement.  In 1851, the year he died, he missed the annual exhibitions; but the previous year, aged seventy-five, there he was at the Royal Academy, with four large oils to display.  During the final fifteen years of the artist’s life, he continued to work at much the same rate as he always had.  There may have been a slow down after 1845, but as Tate Britain’s current exhibition shows, these were not the twilight years.  Late Turner – Painting Set Free, which runs until January next year, is a hefty exhibition and the first of its kind.  There has been a constant flow of Turner shows in recent years – Turner and Venice, Turner and the Sea, Turner Whistler Monet, Turner Monet Twombly – but there has never been a Turner the OAP.  Victorian biographers and critics might have been surprised at today’s theme (one nineteenth century artist even described Turner’s later work as “repulsive”), but for the twenty-first century visitor, the current display includes some of the painter’s most well-known and well-loved works.

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas exhibited 1850 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mercury Sent to Admonish Aeneas (exhibited 1850), J M W Turner, © Tate

This is not, however, an exhibition designed only to showcase the artist’s post-1835 knock-outs and eulogise one of our so-called ‘Great Britons’.  Rather it is an academic display, devised to make the visitor think, learn and reassess.  Turner the Impressionist, Turner the proto-abstract painter, these twentieth century interpretations of the artist have no place in this show.  And stripped of such reductive labels, it is a real-time Turner who emerges, a Turner whose pieces can be viewed as both modern and traditional, while remaining untainted by references to the future.

It all started in the 1890s when art historians began to look at Turner’s later output, much of which was incomplete, in a new light.  Continue reading