My favorite anecdote about the painter John Constable (1776-1837) concerns the hare that can be seen running across the foreground of his large watercolor “Stonehenge” (1835), one of the highlights of this new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. One day, so the story goes, a picture restorer was examining the watercolor out of its frame, when he noticed, to his incredulity and horror, that the hare was – gone! Casting frantically about, he happened to glance downwards, where he spotted it dangling from the end of his necktie! Constable, it turned out, had added the hare as an afterthought, using some glue, which had dried out with time. Needless to say, the restorer lost no time in retrieving the tiny slip of paper and sticking it back in place again.
I was told the hare story many years ago and I don’t know if it’s true, but it fits with what we know about Constable, because, as this exhibition reveals, he was forever experimenting with, and revising and adapting, his work. This isn’t a full retrospective; it’s about the creative process that lay behind such masterpieces as “The Hay Wain,” “The Leaping Horse” and “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.”
Today these paintings, these iconic images, are among the best-loved works in British art, and in his lifetime Constable was praised as an artist who, like his contemporary J. M. W. Turner, was “wholly emancipated from the schools of Dutch, French, or Italian art.” Even so, as the organizers of the show amply demonstrate, he had a deep and abiding reverence for the Old Masters in the European tradition. He was an tireless collector of prints, over 5,000 being found in his attic when he died, and throughout his life he produced copies of works by favorite artists such as Rubens, Poussin, Claude and Ruisdael, echoes of which occur in many of his own paintings. So diligent a copyist was he, in fact, that when he borrowed a Ruisdael from the future prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, to copy (both of which are exhibited here), Peel took the precaution of insisting that Constable make a few amendments to avoid any confusion!
Constable is famous today for what John Ruskin called “truth to nature,” epitomized in his use of the open air oil sketch, but he was following an established tradition here as well. There’s a room in the show devoted to early outdoor painting, which was already common practice by the time Constable began work in the 1790s. Constable particularly revered the work of Thomas Gainsborough (like him, a Suffolk man) and during one of his early forays into the countryside wrote: “I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.” However, it’s fair to say that he went much further than earlier British artists in studying atmospheric effects in his outdoor work. There are some marvelous examples in the show of Constable’s work in this genre, of which the best is his study of a near-apocalyptic rain storm over Brighton (about 1824), as wild and as turbulent as anything Turner might have painted.
Looking at these out-of-doors sketches, you tend to forget that they were only the first stage in a lengthy production process. For his grandest works, such as the “six-footers” depicting scenes along the River Stour, exhibited between 1819 and 1825, Constable also made full-sized studies, and there’s a rare opportunity here to see them alongside the completed paintings. When I was an art history student in the 1970s these studies were rated far more highly than the final exhibited works, being more spontaneous and “expressionistic,” although they too were produced in the studio. In fact, Constable hardly ever painted a picture from start to finish in the open air. Take, for example, “Water Meadows near Salisbury” (1829), about which the hanging committee of the Royal Academy was extremely rude, calling it “a poor thing” and “very green” (so much so, in fact, that the artist withdrew it in a fit of pique). It now seems as revolutionary as anything by Pissarro or Monet, and must surely, therefore, have been painted on the spot. Not a bit of it. Constable, it seems, squared the picture up from a drawing that he made ten years earlier, which he had traced while looking at the river bank through a pane of glass! Nowadays, taking shortcuts like this is almost tantamount to “cheating,” but it’s a fairly safe bet that Constable’s contemporaries wouldn’t have seen it that way.
This exhibition is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in landscape painting. It draws on the huge collection of Constable’s studio contents left to the Victoria and Albert Museum by his last-surviving child, Isabel, in 1888. Only last year a previously unknown sketch was found beneath the lining on the reverse of another work in the collection, shown here in a specially-designed case, as vivid and as fresh as the day it was painted.