John Constable, Stratford Mill, 1820
To the Tate’s Constable exhibition, where the six-footers have been hung with their full-size sketches. Looking at the sketch for Stratford Mill (1820), I was taken with the powerful shaft of light hitting the water in the middle of the painting – absent from the finished work, which is serene, harmonious, calm and maybe a little bit dull. In moving from sketch to exhibited painting, Constable took out the central figure of the fisherman with his eye-catching red scarf, whose prominence may, I suppose, have detracted from the landscape, and also found no room for a duck that skitters across the water in the original composition. The clouds are less rough and turbulent too, although they remain a dramatic counterpoint to the trees – and it was with reference to this painting that Constable made his comment that the sky in a painting is the ‘chief organ of sentiment.’ In fact the more you look at the clouds and trees in the finished painting, the more you realise they are both highly composed and expressive. The sketches may be freer and more direct, but the six-footers themselves were startling in their day.
As I write this peering at frustrating little jpegs on the screen, I’m reminded why I found a visit to the exhibition worthwhile even though the six-footers are so familiar. Revisiting them is like going back to reread nineteenth century literature – I tend to think of Constable’s succession of large-scale major works as resembling a sequence of books, perhaps the equivalent in painting of Thomas Hardy’s novels. The first two rooms of the exhibition are crowded, but it is possible to enjoy the six-footers in an atmosphere of relative calm, both as paintings in their own right and in pairs with their full-size sketches.