Sunday, November 23, 2014

Watermeadows at Salisbury

John Constable,  Landscape with goatherd and goats, 1823
Source for all images: Wikimedia Commons

The V&A's Constable: The Making of Master exhibition provides a fascinating survey of the way Constable was influenced by other artists throughout his career.  He admired the early Gainsborough and it is easy to see why: the Landscape with Pool (1745-6) which Constable would have seen in Ipswich is absolutely exquisite.  Rubens was another stimulus: Constable's Moonlit Landscape with Hadleigh Castle uses effects he took from Rubens' Landscape by Moonlight.  I was fascinated by another Rubens in the show, Summer, with its sunlit plain and turquoise distances (Mrs Plinius dismissed it as "garish").  Also on display are direct copies of seventeenth century masters - the 'facsimile' of a Claude painting (above), and the version (below) of a Ruisdael winter scene owned by Sir Robert Peel, who insisted that Constable include a small dog to distinguish it from the original (I wonder which version is worth more now?)  This added dog inevitably reminded me of the cruise missiles inserted by Peter Kennard into his 1980 version of Constable's The Haywain, a work now owned by the Tate.

John Constable, A winter landscape with figures on a path,
a footbridge and windmills beyond, 1832
  Inscribed on the stretcher 'Copied from the Original Picture by Ruisdael in the possession of Sir Robt Peel Bt by me John Constable RA at Hampstead Sep. 1832 P.S. color (...) Dog added (...) only (...) Size of the Original (...) and Showed this pictures to Dear John Dunthrone Octr 30 1832 (...) this was the last time I (...)' and further inscribed 'Poor J Dunthorne died on Friday (all Saints) the 2d of November. 1832-at 4 o clock in the afternoon Aged 34 years.'

Constable was also interested in the methods and advice of earlier artists.  The exhibition juxtaposes Twenty Studies of Skies after Alexander Cozens (1823) with a copy of Cozens' own examples.  Constable drew these at Coleorton Hall, home of the great collector Sir George Beaumont, where (as I read on the NGA site) Constable 'also studied Cozens’s list of twenty-seven types of ‘Circumstance’ in nature, consisting of accidents (wind, rain, storm etc.), seasons (spring, autumn etc.) and characters (time of day such as ‘rising-sun’, ‘setting-sun’, and ‘close of day’'.  There is something both seductive and reductive about the idea that landscape can be classified in this way, like the tags used to label internet images.  Constable also took heed of Leonardo's advice on a means of achieving accurate perspective whilst out sketching directly from nature, a method demonstrated in this exhibition with a drawing for Watermeadows at Salisbury.
'Take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object you mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to be able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one eye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it. After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.' - Leonardo da Vinci - A Treatise on Painting
John Constable, Watermeadows at Salisbury, 1820 or 1829

The most interesting room in this excellent exhibition is the least colourful, devoted to Constable's collection of prints.  As the curators explain, over his career Constable amassed '59 oil paintings by ‘Old and Modern Masters’ and over 5000 prints, 250 drawings, 37 books of prints and 39 framed prints and drawings.'  This enthusiasm reminds me of Van Gogh, whose letters vividly convey his pleasure in acquiring prints (and also photographic reproductions, an option not yet available to Constable).  The small selection of Constable's collection displayed at the V&A amounts to a history of Western landscape art in its diverse forms: Dürer, Titian, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, Rosa, Waterloo.  It was only a few years ago that I too would need to have owned a reproduction of one of these images to study it here in the comfort of my home.  Now they are available to me instantly wherever my phone can get a signal.

Google Image Search: Rembrandt's The Three Trees (1643),
an etching owned by Constable.


Earlier this week, at the LRB bookshop event mentioned in my last post, I met Chris from pastoral punk duo Way Through, who told me that they had been in Constable Country this summer for a Field Broadcast project called Scene on a Navigable River.  As part of this they reworked the track 'Dedham Vale' which appeared on their 2013 album Clapper Is Still.  Field Broadcast is 'a live digital broadcasting platform led by artists Rebecca Birch and Rob Smith. After downloading a special Field Broadcast app, the software waits quietly until the artist’s work is ready for transmission, when a live video stream opens unannounced on the recipient’s computer, tablet or mobile phone desktop.'  I am now imagining what would have happened if Way Through's dissonant music had suddenly activated while I was in an important meeting - I suppose this element of surprise is a way of countering the sheer availability of art online.  Two hundred years ago there was only Constable, leaving his room full of prints to walk out into the landscape his paintings were in the process of 'creating' for us.  He could reproduce an old painting but in working from nature he held up a small screen of glass the size of a modern tablet device and tried to trace what he could see.  'When I sit down to make a sketch from nature,' he wrote, 'the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.' 

John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1802 

1 comment:

theresa said...

Wonderful post. I love those watermeadows.