Constable is my favourite artist and it’s all thanks to Charles I; let me tell you a story… My A-Level history class was studying the English Civil Wars and we came to London on a trip to see the Banqueting House where in 1649 for the only time in our history we beheaded a King and became a Republic for 11 years. The majority of us were pretty sympathetic to Charles – tell a bunch of romantic 17 year old girls that he was around 5ft, devotedly loved his wife and was forced to kill his friend, and you’ll make Royalists out of them – and after lunch we were taken to the National Gallery to look at the magnificent Van Dyck portrait of Charles sitting aloft a disproportionately large horse dripping in English symbolism. We emerged from the side room into a collection of Gainsborough portraits and Turners; suddenly there it was, right at the end of the room, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, the most beautiful painting I had ever seen, and a lasting love of Constable was born.
So this new exhibition at the V&A was something of a must-see. I’ve had my differences with curation at this museum in the last couple of years and their Horst exhibition, which is running in the rooms next door to Constable, has done much to salvage our relationship. Happily Constable confirms the upward trend and, despite my preference for the artist, this still has to be one of the best shows in London at the moment. There is plenty to learn about the development of his technique, his methods of scaling from tiny sketch to 6ft canvas, and how this led to his famous interpretations of nature and the drama of the English weather.
It begins with some interesting context, placing Constable’s work among other earlier and contemporary artists who had inspired the development of his style. Here we see the original work of ‘Old Masters’ sitting alongside a piece that either Constable copied directly or used to inspire a similar landscape study. Constable practiced his technique by looking closely at the work of Raphael, Rubens (there’s that link to Charles I again – Rubens designed the Banqueting House ceiling) and particularly Claude Lorrain, who composed classical scenes of pastoral or harbour landscapes often using dramatic light effects. He was also inspired by Thomas Girtin, a contemporary, who painted a number of ruins of medieval churches in a simple but imposing style and that can be seen in Constable’s similar fusion of religion and nature in a number of works.
One of the great successes of this exhibition is that sense of place Constable has in a longer tradition of landscape painters, clearly seeing his work evolve and reflect his wider learning. Sensibly, then, having absorbed the theory the next stage is to experience it for himself and the viewer is guided to a section on ‘Sketching in the Open Air’ where the famous clouds make an appearance. The pieces in this room are quite small as Constable sketched on scraps of paper or cloth and you can see pin holes in several of them showing where they had been pinned to his paintbox. Although many of these reflect the immediate surroundings of his countryside home, there are also some lovely sketches of Brighton beach where the open expanse of sky dominates more than half the image. Building on the work of the Old Masters, you see not just his command of weather effects, but also of reflection and movement in water, particularly in the lovely Watermeadows Near Salisbury.
There are some more direct copies of other artists which helped to pay the bills and often fetched more than Constable’s original works. His large colourless sketch of the fallen saint from Titian’s ‘St Peter the Martyr’ is stunning and surprisingly soft. There are few portraits so it is interesting to see the lightness of touch he has in this piece, sitting alongside all those more famous works depicting the immovability of nature. And in the next rooms we get to some of those amazing large canvases, The Haywain, The Leaping Horse and The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, all exhibited alongside the tiny pencil drawings of particular elements and the full-size oil sketches Constable did in preparation for each. It is still surprising to see the looseness of the full-size sketches which have a blurry quality next to the almost pinsharp precision of the final painting.
The exhibition finishes with the end of the artistic process and the transformation of these works into print form, telling you about Constable’s struggle to the get them right and the fall-out with those he was trying to do business with. You come away not just with a sense of the artistic process, from theory to mass print production, but also having seen the growth of an artist who painted what he knew. Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows is here of course, temporarily back to London from its tour of the UK having been purchased for the nation last year. It’s now owned by the Tate (and partners) so it’s probably never going back to that wall in the National Gallery unfortunately. Painted shortly after the death of Constable’s wife, and less naturalistic than his other work, he considered it his masterpiece. And I can’t help but agree, it’s the culmination of everything his work can do – full of drama and pain, beautiful detail and much to say on nature, religion and hope. Despite countless exhibitions, hundreds of artists and probably thousands of pictures, it’s still the most beautiful painting I have ever seen and well worth the entrance fee. Constable: The Making of a Master is a great show and not to be missed. Well done V&A, we’re officially friends again.
Constable: The Making of an Master is at the V&A until 11 January. Tickets are £14 (without donation) and concessions are available.