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Late Constable at the Royal Academy of Arts

14 January 2022

Nicholas Cranfield sees the effect of London life on a landscape artist



John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1829, on loan from the Tate (to which it which it was bequeathed by Henry Vaughan in 1900)

John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c.1829, on loan from the Tate (to which it which it was bequeathed by Henry Vaughan in 1900)

THIS unusual and somewhat unsatisfactory exhibition seeks to rehabilitate the late works of John Constable (1776-1837). It might have attracted more focus had it been called “After The Hay Wain”, the painting that was the undoubted success of the 1821 Royal Academy Annual Exhibition and was three years later awarded a prestigious gold medal at the Paris Salon.

Instead, it opens with a failure and ends with the incomplete painting Arundel Mill and Castle, on which the artist was working the night before he died in the early hours of April Fool’s Day.

The so-called “six-footers”, large-scale landscape paintings of the Valley of the Stour in Essex, initially brought Constable a good degree of success; his deserved reputation hinges on them to this day.

The first, The White Horse (The Frick Collection, New York), was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1819, the second in 1820 (Stratford Mill, National Gallery, London) and The Hay Wain the following year. The 1822 View on the Stour near Dedham (Huntington Museum and Art Gallery, San Marino, California) was followed two years later by The Lock, which Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza sold at Christie’s in July 2021 for £22.4 million.

All seemed to go well, but The Leaping Horse, the sixth in the series, failed to find a buyer despite Constable’s reworking it. It is seen here alongside a full-size oil sketch showing Constable’s evolving ideas.

By 1825, Constable had long left his native Essex and was living in London; so his landscape paintings derived from sketchbooks and from his memory. Whereas much of his earlier work was topographically accurate, Constable began to allow himself a degree of artistic licence, and his paint becomes looser.

This is sometimes more successful than on other occasions.

© The Phillips Collection, Washington, DCJohn Constable, On the River Stour, c.1834-37, on loan from The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1925  

We see this, for instance, in The Cornfield (1826), perhaps the most recognisable of his works in this small show, which is paired with Dedham Vale (1828). While Fen Lane is exactly painted, the later picture is manipulated to have more in common with the landscapes of Campania so much beloved of Claude Lorraine.

The two are linked (almost literally) by The Chain Pier, Brighton, a coastal subject that he painted in 1826-27, when, despite disliking Brighton, he found himself repeatedly there for the health of his wife and later of his children.

At times, this show feels like Hamlet without the Prince, because of the absence of the two most important paintings of this period, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817) (both Tate), and because this stage is not large enough.

The spectacular view of Salisbury is out on loan to China (The Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai) and the Thames scene, reminiscent of Canaletto’s views of Westminster Bridge (1747-50), is not on display at Millbank.

Instead, we get to see only smaller sketches for both. It would be difficult to see how the actual canvases could be fitted in the already cramped spaces of these disappointing new gallery rooms, but the impact is lost.

Two slightly earlier cloud studies demonstrate one of Constable’s best-known obsessions. So accurately did he observe cloud formations that meteorologists can match the dates on which he painted alongside the existing weather records.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, LondonJohn Constable, Stonehenge, 1835, Watercolour, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, bequeathed by Isabel Constable, daughter of the artist  

In her book Weatherland (2015), Alexandra Harris, writing of a sketch that he had annotated “31. Sepr 10-11 o’clock morning looking Eastward a gentle wind to East” (p. 244), pointed out: “We know that Constable got the date wrong because he got the clouds so right.”

Meteorologists claim that the cloud formation appeared only the following day. Like Harris they, too, had not remembered that September has thirty days. Such studies inspired the photographer Gerhard Lang (b. 1963) to photograph clouds from outside Constable’s Hampstead home, on the same day 173 years later.

Constable long knew St Mary’s, Langham, in Essex and its vicar John Fisher was one of his first patrons, and later became Bishop of Salisbury. The sketch for The Glebe Farm, c.1830, with the church next door, is more earthy and direct, whereas the finished oil tends towards some sort of pastoral romantic scene with the inclusion of a young girl in the foreground and a cow drinking from the stream. Yet his oil sketch includes a fictitious spire rather than the 13th-century tower, with battlements and crocketed pinnacles.

Such minute details repay close attention; did J. M. W. Turner “borrow” the startled hare from the watercolour Stonehenge (1835) for his own Rain, Steam and Speed view of Maidenhead Railway viaduct, exhibited in 1844? The stone circle with a double rainbow (V&A) shows a hare bounding away in the foreground, disturbed perhaps by the presence of the artist coming on to the scene a few moments after a summer shower that seemingly had not inconvenienced either of the Georgian gentlemen visiting the ruins. A wide landscape, Old Sarum (1834), offers the Wiltshire idyll of a shepherd taking his flock back in the evening.

Despite the advocacy of the likes of Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, I came away still feeling lukewarm towards Constable’s late period, but I cheered myself heartily by going into the Collection galleries next door to see the Michelangelo bas-relief Taddei Tondo, which his friend Sir George Beaumont had given to the Royal Academy, as Constable noted on his sketch of 1 July 1830.

“Late Constable” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 13 February. Phone 020 7300 8090. www.royalacademy.org.uk

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