Thursday, August 31, 2006

Red Arch Mountain, Utah

In Berlin Childhood around 1900 Walter Benjamin relates his childhood immersion in watercolours to the story of an old Chinese painter. The old man invited friends around to see his most recent picture. They were shown a landscape with a footpath leading along a stream and through a grove to a small cottage. When they turned around and looked for the painter, he had gone. They saw that he had entered the picture and was walking up the path to the door, where he paused ‘quite still, turned, smiled and disappeared through the narrow opening.’

Reading Benjamin’s book it is difficult not to reflect on one’s own childhood memories. Benjamin describes the streets, parks and monuments of Berlin but he also dwells on the landscapes of furniture and household objects that a child negotiates. He remembers the power of postcards and the old Imperial Panorama where ‘one afternoon, while seated before a transparency of Aix, I tried to persuade myself that, once upon a time, I must have played on the patch of pavement that is guarded by the old plane trees of the Cours Mirabeau.’ On reading this I went down to our cellar and found my father’s old stereoscope which had enchanted me as a child. The image below, for example, is Red Arch Mountain, Utah, probably photographed in about 1947 (some of the discs have this date). An anonymous photographer’s tiny image in Kodachrome “natural colour”, it now has the time capsule qualities of a miniature landscape in a Book of Hours. What seemed a strange, distant mountain to me as a child is now potentially accessible, but the world that produced the stereoscope is irretrievable, along with the imaginative space of childhood.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

150 ft Seaskape, Largiebeg

Bruce McLean designed the café-bar at the newly refurbished Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. It is bright and colourful, like his paintings and prints. Not really my cup of tea (although the coffee they serve is good!) It seems a far cry from the late sixties when McLean was dabbling in a kind of land art. For 150 ft Seaskape, Largiebeg (1969) he laid a huge sheet of sensitised paper on the shore hoping for an indexical print of the landscape, but it floated out to sea. Another piece, 2 Rock and Shoreskapes, Largieberg (1969) required only 33 ft of white paper, laid on a rocky shore and covered with watercolour paint, leaving the landscape to tear and stain its presence onto the work.

The Arnolfini is one of the sites in Bristol currently hosting the sixth British Art Show. One of the works on show at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, created by Juneau/Projects/, seems to update McLean’s attempts to record the landscape directly: a scanner was pulled along the ground and the resulting images pinned to the gallery wall. However, it is clear from the artists’ installation that the intention here was not simply to facilitate a work of landscape art in which nature is the creator. Their focus is on technology (other works involve microphones, walkmans etc.), the idea being to take them outside and let natural forces demolish them. The British Art Show notes explain that ‘in good morning captain (2004) a scanner is dragged along a forest floor, documenting its own destruction with a series of blurred scans.’
Nevertheless, artists will no doubt continue to seek ways to allow landscape itself to create or adapt their work: kinetic sculpture, sound art or variations on photography (“the pencil of nature”). Outside the art world, simple indexical signs like weather vanes and sun dials let nature signify something (time, wind direction), whilst the landscape itself is full of natural signs that can be read by animals. However, as we know from modernism, art need not point in this way to something specific; signs that give a general sense of an actual landscape may turn out to be more interesting.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c1380), the poet describes the landscape through which the hero rides with sufficient detail that R.W.V. Elliott has been able to situate the story in the area of Leek in Staffordshire. Here are lines describing the increasingly inhospitable conditions as winter draws in:
For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,
And fres er hit falle my3t to þe fale erþe;
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo ny3tez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,
And henged he3e ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.
In Bernard O’Donoghue’s new translation for Penguin, the second and third lines relate that ‘ice-cold water poured from the clouds / and froze before it hit the grey ground’. And Gawain is described sleeping in the naked rocks ‘where cold streams clattered down from the heights / or hung over his head in hard spears of ice.’ 

Simon Armitage is also currently working on a translation, due from Faber in 2007. However, an extract has already been included in Wild Reckoning: An anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (2004). Armitage has ‘clouds shed their cargo of crystallized rain / which froze as it fell to the frost-glazed earth’ and describes Gawain ‘bivouacked in the blackness’, ‘where melt-water crashed from the snow-capped peaks and high overhead hung chandeliers of ice.’

Sunday, August 27, 2006


The National Maritime Museum is showing three sets of photographs by Dan Holdsworth: At the Edge of Space (1999), The Gregorian (2005) and Hyperborea (2006). Images can be seen at the artist’s website. For me the most impressive were the last of these, a series of photographs of the Northern Lights taken in Reykjavik and the Andoya Rocket Range above the Arctic Circle in Norway. The eerie light that dominates these images casts strange colours on the snow: often a sort of faintly luminous grey-green, here and there a quartz-like pink. The rocks and ice lie inert, looking almost unreal beneath these lurid pulsing skies, although in a few of the images an orange glow seems to emanate from the ground from some artificial light sources. Holdsworth’s long exposures leave traces of stars: arcs of varying intensities in delicate shades of turquoise or orange-green. Rather than isolate views, these photographs manage to convey a sense of planetary motion and connect the landscape with a wider view of space and time.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Scattered Stones at Nikko

Yesterday I came upon a blog which reproduced the Hamish Fulton work we have hanging above our computer: The Life of Scattered Stones: Seven One Day Walks in the Rain, Nikko, Japan April 1990. The difficulties of reproduction are at the heart of Hamish Fulton’s work. Our Hamish Fulton print is a record of his walks, but cannot reproduce the experience. It is number 9 of 250 and I sometimes wonder who has the other 249 and what Fulton would think of us all. We bought the print partly in memory of a special day spent at Nikko in 1998, when the old stones and mossy trees glistened in the mist just as they do in Fulton’s rain-washed photograph. Fulton made his walks at Nikko in April, the same month Basho passed through on his Narrow Road to the Deep North, three hundred and one years earlier. Basho felt wary of writing too much about the temple at Nikko and instead recorded his simple awe at seeing green leaves shining brightly in the sun.

There is monument to Basho which is away from the main tourist area and therefore possible to enjoy in solitude.

Nikko, August 1998

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A view of Çatalhöyük

An article in the June issue of Natural History magazine explains how excavations at the Neolothic site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey during the early 1960s revealed a wall painting that seems to show a town with a double-peaked volcano in the background. Archaeologist James Mellaart drew a reconstruction to convey more clearly what the painting depicts; the town may be Çatalhöyük itself and the volcano may Hasan Dağ. I suppose this might be described as an 8,500 year old landscape painting…

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Tatsuta River in Autumn

In the Shotetsu monogatari, Shotetsu (1381-1459) wrote ‘If someone asks you in which of the provinces Yoshino may be found, you should answer this way: When I write my poems I simply remember that for blossoms one goes to Yoshino, for red leaves to Tatsuta. Whether those places are in Ise or wherever is not my concern.’ (trans. Steven D. Carter in The Road to Kamatsubara). As this quotation shows, knowledge of poetic geography and the associations of Famous Places were essential for Japanese poets, but familiarity with the real locations was quite unnecessary. As Steven D. Carter puts it, ‘the essence (hon’i) of any Famous Place is defined in terms of a history of poetic treatment; such places occupy poetic rather than physical space’.

There is a song Sasa no Tsuyu composed by Kikuoka Kengyo (1791-1847) which includes the words ‘Yoshino blossoms and Tatsuta leaves - without sake they would be ordinary places.’ Despite this, Yoshino and Tatsuta Park still promote themselves as ideal locations for viewing cherry blossoms and red maple leaves.

Hokusai included a print of the Tatsuta River in Autumn from his series One Hundred Poems (1835-6). The print illustrates a poem by Ariwara no Narihira (825-80) which states that even in ancient days, when the gods held sway, no water shone red like Tatsuta. (Ariwara no Narihira was a contemporary of Minamoto no Toru, whom Hokusai had depicted, talking in the landscape garden he had designed to resemble Shiogama Bay, in his series A True Miror of Chinese and Japanese Poems).

One of the stories told about Hokusai is that when ‘told to paint red maple leaves floating on the Tatsuta River, Hokusai supposedly drew a few blue lines on a long sheet of paper and then, dipping the feet of a chicken in red paint, chased it across the scroll, making the bird's red footprints his maple leaves.’ (Sandy Kita and Takako Kobayashi). This story features in a 1983 poem by the Czech writer Jan Skácel.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Bay of Shiogama

Katsushika Hokusai, The Minister Toru, c. 1833-4

Among the miniature landscapes reproduced in Japanese gardens, one of the more elaborate was created in the late ninth century by Minamoto no Toru (822-95), Minister of the Left and a son of Emperor Saga. His Kyoto garden recreated the Bay of Shiogama and even included a salt kiln because the famous kiln at Shiogama was believed to be the first place salt had been made in Japan. As Ivan Morris describes it in his book The World of the Shining Prince, the Minister ‘ordered gallons of water to be brought daily from the coast and, while it was being boiled, he and his friends would sit and imagine themselves in the far-of northern region – a region which, of course, nothing short of a ukase would have induced them to visit in person.’ Royall Tyler also describes the creation of this garden. Why was Toru admired, to the extent that a No play was written about him by Zeami? Tyler thinks there are two reasons: (1) he transmuted the raw landscape into an aesthetic object, bringing the hinterland into the capital; (2) his gesture was at the same time respectful and transmitted recognition back onto the original landscape.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Springs of Clitumnus

Sometimes there’s nothing more pleasurable than the lucid prose of a scholar of the old school. A particular favourite of mine is Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape (1957) which brings alive the Roman poets through vivid translations and an imaginative evocation of their environment. There is, for example, Sextus Propertius, one of whose elegies includes the line
among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
Highet gets underneath this brief description by quoting other writings by Virgil and Pliny the younger; Pliny says in a letter to his friend Romanus: ‘There is a fair-sized hill, dark with ancient cypress-woods. Beneath this the spring rises, gushing out in several veins of unequal size. After the initial flow has smoothed out, it spreads into a broad pool, pure and clear as glass, so that you can count the coins that have been thrown into it and the pebbles glittering at the bottom.’

Highet himself provides his own description of the site, as he follows in the footsteps of the Roman writers: ‘the springs are about three feet deep. Their bed is creamy white gravel mixed with fine sand. Even in the smallest inlet, a pool the size of a little table, the gravel is constantly stirring, and the surface quivers every fifteen seconds with a tiny explosion of water… All water in motion is wonderful. Cool copious fresh water, absolutely clean, rising out of dry earth under a hot sun, is very wonderful…Willows hang over the wells, gazing into them with a soft narcissus melancholy. Poplar trees, lifting heads and arms to the sky, disdain their own reflections. Between their trunks we see the glinting sides of white oxen, and the timbre of church bells drifts faintly over the water. There is no noise: but there is, in the water and in the air, a ceaseless happy whisper, as though kind spirits inhabited the place.’

He is glad the springs are off the tourist trail and thus little-frequented, ‘… even so it was depressing to see, in one of the fountain-beds, half a dozen Coca-Cola bottles set to cool for possible sale to tourists. Only the charm and quiet of the scene made us forget the profanation’.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

View of Notre Dame

Back in 1999 Art News did a list of the ’25 Most Influential Artists’ of the twentieth century. These were: Beuys, Bourgeois, Brancusi, Dali, Duchamp, De Kooning, Judd, Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Malevich, Man Ray, Matisse, Mies Van Der Rohe, Mondrian, Nauman, Monet, Paik, Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Sherman, Smithson, Stieglitz, Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems a reasonable list to me, although worth bearing in mind perhaps that Louise Bourgeois was much talked about when the list was compiled. It is possible to find some connection to landscape in any of these artists, but here are a few specific links mentioned in the Art News article:

  • Henri Matisse’s View of Notre Dame (1914) was a source for some of Robert Motherwell’s Open series. Matisse was also an inspiration for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.
  • Similarly, Claude Monet’s landscapes and water lilies led towards semi-abstract and abstract paintings, although his Water Lilies can also be seen as precursors of the sensory spaces created by artists like Walter De Maria and James Turrell.
  • Constantin Brancusi’s minimalist sculptures and his monuments at Târgu Jiu prefigure more recent art in the landscape, like Carl Andre’s Secant installation and the lines walked by Richard Long.
  • Clearly Frank Lloyd Wright has influenced landscape architecture, for example the environmentally sensitive designs of William McDonough.
  • Finally, Robert Smithson’s multi-facetted work leads to and from landscape in various ways. Projects by Mel Chin (Revival Field), Mierle Ukeles (Flow City) and Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt (Phoenix Solid Waste Management Facility) all relate back to Smithson’s proposals for an art of land reclamation.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1973 

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Standing Stones of Stenness

Living in the city I don’t get to see many musicians interacting directly with the landscape, but reading reviews I get the impression that there are now few remote islands and windswept shores that don’t get a visit from passing sound artists – the twenty-first century equivalent of the late Romantic landscape painters. And yet despite all the activity, it seems it’s not always easy to make experimental music in hostile environments… even when the audiences are receptive, the landscapes can remain unresponsive. Take, for example, Biba Kopf’s description in The Wire of the Resonant Spaces events in Scotland this summer, featuring saxophonist John Butcher and sound artist Akio Suzuki. At the Standing Stones of Stenness, Butcher found the ancient stones difficult to work with: “the echo effects were definitely there… I tried short, piercing, rapid attacks on the tenor, and that was interesting for sounding out the stones. But I couldn’t see a way of working musically with that.” However, the high-pitched multiple tones of his amplified soprano produced the morning’s first breakthrough. “The surprising thing was that the previously reasonably silent sheep, who were gathered in the far corner of the Stones area, recognised qualities in those sounds and they started bleating,” smiles Butcher. Eventually things did come together, when Butcher stopped blowing and allowed the wind to play his amplified soprano (there is a photograph here).

The strong wind at the Standing Stones also did its best to drown out Akio Suzuki’s analopos (an acoustic echo instrument). However, he can be seen here playing it at another concert in Smoo Cave, Durness. The Resonant Spaces site has samples of Suzuki playing the analapos and stone flute. Suzuki’s flutes are actually fragments of landscape: naturally eroded stones (a posting on BLDGBLOG speculates that one day Europe’s fossilised reef could form a vast musical landform along similar lines). Suzuki has spent many years making sound art in the landscape using natural forces like the wind. For example, in 1988 he created a space in the mountains of Aminocho near Kyoto so as to spend an entire day listening to the sounds of nature. He built ‘two parallel walls of sun dried bricks which produce a unique echo effect similar to the famous “roaring dragon” walls at Tosuga Shrine in Nikko’ (quoted in David Toop’s Haunted Weather). In 1996 his contribution to the Berlin Sonambiente Festival was to walk the city and mark with a special listening symbol any spot where he heard an interesting sound, creating an alternative to the traditional itinerary. He made a similar work the following year, mapping the town of Enghien-Les-Bains to locate the areas where echoes were most resonant.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Green Line

The Magnum site currently has an exhibition of war photography from Lebanon, 1972-2005, with images of “the civil war, the reconstruction of Beirut, the Palestinian refuge camps, the influence of Hezbollah, Israeli incursions / pullouts and the relatively carefree life that civilians were enjoying before the eruption of the latest conflict”. Some of the most striking cityscapes are by the Iranian photographer Abbas. In 2004 he photographed pristine new buildings in Beirut with the Holiday Inn towering behind them, still scarred by shrapnel. What would this view look like today? It seems as if the city is returning to the ruins Abbas photographed in 1977 - a partially-collapsed building watched by an injured man.
The strangest and most compelling of Abbas’s images shows the Green Line demarcation zone between Christian East and Muslim West Beirut in 1982. It vividly demonstrates how a line coloured green on the map of Beirut became a literal ‘green’ zone, with post-apocalyptic vegetation reclaiming the streets and obliterating the scars of war. The evolution of the Green Line is explained here by Michael F. Davie: “the first two years of the war also saw the creation of the "Green Line" (a term borrowed from Israeli military mapping vocabulary), the demarcation line between the main opposing militias. This no-man's land slowly widened and spread thanks to military action, became overgrown with vegetation, then extended to the city's suburbs then to the ridges and valleys overlooking Beirut.” More images of the Green Line can be found here.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Lake Superior

Lorine Niedecker’s poetry might be thought too spare, too minimal to give a true sense of landscape. And yet, as Charles Tomlinson has written, ‘the space of an environment, sparse in detail and mocking the trite inadequacy of the names that American locations so often bear, stands at the back of Miss Niedecker’s terse formulations – they are fragments shorn against long winters, spring floods and literary isolation.’ In a 1961 essay Jonathan Williams described her house at Black Hawk Island and observed that ‘the river is a major fact in her life – lying there sparkling and running, often flooding and worrying people. It’s in the poems.’ Niedecker herself said, ‘the Brontes had their moors, I have my marshes.’

In fact Niedecker did write longer poems that convey the watery expanses of Wisconsin. ‘Paean to Place’, for example, where we read of her father sculling through marsh fog and her mother helping him with the nets. Then there is ‘Lake Superior’, in which fragmentary facts and quotations mingle with elements of the landscape: granite, iron-ore, blue ice, birch bark and water. And there is her poem ‘My Life by Water’, which can be read here

A slightly muffled but engrossing recording of Niedecker from November 1970 can be heard here. In it she reads from her last collection Harpsichord & Salt Fish. There is a real poignancy in hearing her reading these poems a month before she died, at the age of 67, on the last day of the year.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Elter Water

What makes for a spontaneous looking landscape? One might imagine paint applied directly and confidently, in broad, vigorous strokes, as in the sketches of Constable or Turner. But this was not the only route to a lively image, as the watercolours of Francis Towne (1739-1816) demonstrate. Towne started with a pencil sketch, followed this with the application of paint, and then a further process of drawing in which the original sketch re-emerged. As Timothy Wilcox has pointed out in his book on Towne, the ‘initial drawing is retained by being recreated, like a repeat performance, within the painted image, line and colour preserved together in a perpetually resolved tension. The line was the very stuff of the ‘on the spot’ experience: Towne did not want to lose it when he added colour to his drawing.’ This approach can be seen in his Lakeland views, like Elter Water (1786). In fact Wilcox sees Towne’s procedure in five stages: write – draw – paint – draw – write. The writing stages comprised the initial note and the final record of the time, place and conditions of the landscape.

The Wilcox book also includes a fascinating inventory of the contents of Francis Towne’s library in 1816. There are dictionaries and maps from his trips abroad, along with travel books (Gilpin, Addison) and guide books to the Lakes. There are, unsurprisingly, books on art (Hogarth, De Piles) and Reynolds’ discourses, but also compositions by Handel and ‘2 Written Books of Music bound in Calf’. Literature includes Don Quixote, The Beggars Opera, Metamorphoses and Gil Blas. Other titles include New Heraldry in Miniature, The Wild Irish Girl, The Provok’d Wife – A Comedy and Bona Mors – or the Art of Dying happily.

Francis Towne, Windermere at Sunset, 1786

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Hurricane before Saint Malo

The BBC website has an enjoyable virtual exhibition, ‘Painting the Weather’, with an audio tour in which you can hear the soothingly authoritative voice of Neil MacGregor describing some of the pictures. However, the site also has some no-nonsense comments by weather forecaster, Bill Giles, which are well worth a listen. Looking at Canaletto’s Old Walton Bridge Over the Thames (1754), for example, Giles imagines himself there with his family, forecasting a rain shower on the evidence of the cloud pattern above the bridge. Whistler’s Green and Silver: The Great Sea (1899) reminds him of winter walks after a big Sunday lunch. Sometimes he is a doubtful about the artists’ meteorological accuracy: Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Sabey’s Hurricane before Saint Malo (1860) actually shows a storm giving “hurricane force winds” rather than an actual hurricane (these tropical revolving storms not being found off the Brittany coast).

My favourite Bill Giles contribution is his analysis of Courbet’s L’Eternité (c1865). This painting is described on the site as ‘intense and melancholy… painted over a dark ground (or underlayer) which explains its sombre tone; as Courbet himself said: ‘Nature without the sun is also dark and black. I do as the light does, I illuminate the parts that project and the picture is done’. The title (Eternity) draws our attention to the vast expanse of sea and sky, its timelessness and our own relative inconsequence.’ In splendid contrast, here’s how Bill Giles describes this brooding seascape.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Moon Quay

After the War, Peter Lanyon returned to Cornwall and developed his semi-abstract paintings which recreate his experience of the local landscape in time and space. Meanwhile Terry Frost, who had begun painting as a P.O.W., settled in St. Ives and met Lanyon there. Between 1947 and 1950 Frost was studying under Victor Pasmore at Camberwell and developed an abstract style based on geometric shapes. Back in Cornwall, he got to discover the landscape with Lanyon, who drove Frost ‘all over the place, along the coast and up the moors.’ In a 1993 interview Frost explained how Lanyon ‘taught me to experience landscape… so you lay down in the landscape, you looked up in a tree… you walked over the landscape so that you understood its shape, you looked behind rocks so that you knew what their shape was all the way round and what lay behind them...’ The resulting paintings resemble Lanyon’s work at the time, but Frost’s are generally more precise and less expressionist, with the canvases divided into coloured shapes that seem to represent fragments of landscape - an example is Moon Quay (1950), based on the experience of walking from his house on Quay Street in St Ives. Frost was self-deprecating about his approach. Whereas, Lanyon ‘roared into his drawing’, Frost himself ‘was very tight-arsed because of Camberwell… I walked round and round, trying to draw the experience of the landscape in a single moving line’ (quotes from Chris Stephens’ book Terry Frost). It is intriguing to compare these two painters’ approaches as they looked for ways to fix in two dimensions their memories of four-dimensional landscape experience.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Ocean Park

It is fifteen years now since the Whitechapel Gallery held its Richard Diebenkorn retrospective. My memories of the exhibition - walking in from the grey city streets to experience the space and light of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings - now seem like the distant recollections of a sunlit summer. Abstract works like Ocean Park No. 115 (1979), shown here, can only represent a landscape the way it feels, through selected elements of the way it looks. Never having been to California I imagine these paintings to be distillations of the essence of the place. I'm happy to believe Robert Hughes when he says ‘there is a kind of light on Diebenkorn’s stretch of coastline – mild, high and ineffably clear, descending like a benediction on the ticky-tacky slopes just before the fleeting sunset drops over Malibu – that is all but unique in north America, and Diebenkorn’s paintings always appear to be done in terms of it.’

Source: Mark Harden

But is there really much trace of landscape in the Ocean Park paintings? Hughes sees ‘pale-blue Pacific air, cuts and slices of gable, white posts by the sea, sudden drop-offs of hill or thruway'. 'These images of the California coast have found their way into his works, but in a condensed and fully digested idiom whose sources, far back in the early twentieth century, are Henri Matisse and Piet Monrian.’ However, Arthur Danto may be nearer the mark when he writes: ‘in my view, Diebenkorn's paintings are less about the bright skies and long horizons of Ocean Park than about the act of painting, as if the works had become more and more their own subjects and the external references stand at best as indications of what the painting is not about- Ceci n'est pas un paysage!’

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Stratford Mill

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.