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June 29, 2006

Christie Davies revels in traditional Constable landscapes sponsored by American capitalism: Constable: The Great Landscapes at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

Constable: The Great Landscapes
Tate Britain, London
1st June - 28th August 2006
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

National Gallery of Art, Washington
1st October - 31st December 2006

Huntingdon Art Collection, San Marino, California
February - May 2007

Sponsored in London by AIG (American International Group Inc) in memory of Sir Edwin Manton, capitalist and Constable enthusiast.

Constable is probably Britain's best loved painter of our countryside and the series of big six foot landscapes at Tate Britain are his best work. Those who prefer splodj-and-grue coloured abstract bands may well sneer at this work and call it "chocolate box" but all that tells us is that they do not like chocolate. No doubt they prefer some alternative stimulant from nature's pharmacy. There is no "progress" in painting from Constable to Whistler to Jack Yeats to Lowry, merely a series of different ways of looking at a landscape or at people in it which produce delights in our heads. The Constable exhibition is one of those delights.

Soon Constable's work will be all that is left of rural Suffolk and its Essex border for John Prescott will have built all over it to house the increased population that Tony Blair has encouraged in from foreign parts. Wivenhoe has already been ruined physically as well as intellectually by the siting there of the University of Essex.

Landscapes are man-made and inevitably change and it is a romantic myth to think we can still the world of Constable. Indeed it was never in any exact sense there, for Constable changed and transformed it as he painted. He created his landscapes as is clear from his full scale composition sketches which are shown here alongside the finished paintings. Many of the sketches done in preparation were not sold to anyone, they just piled up in his studio. If you look at the two together and also take a peek at the X-rays, it is clear how he would move a building or a figure or a boat or re-arrange a horizon until he got the exact pattern of shape, depth and colour that he wanted. What we see here in Constable has nothing in common with the colour snap an oik with a mobile phone might take.

One of the great pleasures of looking at Constable's work is that for each of the pictures hanging on the walls you get at least two versions, one seen from far away and one close up and, indeed, as many as you want in-between.

From a distance, his most famous work, The Hay Wain, 1821 is made up of sections: trees/ clouds/ river/ a plain catching the light/ a house setting off the trees. The hay wain breaking up the line of the river is just a great lump of a cart with a huge wheel. Of the small details, only the white shirt of the driver - which is presumably far cleaner and brighter than a real carter's shirt - jumps at you. That shirt is needed, much like Constable's use of red jackets and weskits elsewhere, to break up the softness of river, tree and cloud, bringing the scenery out but not distracting us from it.

Viewing The Hay Wain, we can concentrate on Constable's mastery of clouds - as in the van Ruisdael he so admired - and of slow, sluggish, winding rivers. Moving closer we can now discern the workers in the fields, swallows and ducks, a small boat on the far bank and a black-hatted and fishing-rodded man thrusting his way towards it. We can see the other two, smaller wheels that show it is a product of the wainwright's not the cartwright's skill. The light catches the under-branches of the trees and right next to us there is a dog at the very front of the picture on the near bank.

Constable often places a dog in just such a position, presumably because a dog has four legs and has a horizontal line. Dogs slide with the flat landscape rather than poking up against it as a tall man would if placed in that position in the painting. Sometimes a small child playing will do as well. A wean is the right size to balance a wain whereas a Wayne would not be. When first sketched out there was in fact a boy on a horse next to the dog but Constable took them out. They would have been too obtrusive. At this stage he also inserted the angler, who is far enough away and too dully coloured to get in the way.

For those planning to visit the exhibition it would be as well to try to pick a day and a time when it is not crowded. Otherwise you will not be able to move around seeing the pictures from different distances and different angles. How would anyone have been able to do this when The Hay Wain was hung at the Royal Academy in 1821, higgledy-piggledy with other paintings of all sizes so as to save on wall space? Indeed one reason Constable did these great six-footers was to make them stand out from the others simply by being bigger.

One can imagine the Regency aesthete, the Hon. Anthony Dalrymple craning to get a glimpse of a dog or a duck through his lorgnettes and deploring the clustering and scented but odorous crowd hemming him in and blocking his view with their heads and hats. Today Dalrymple is best remembered for his clear views on the administration of prisons and asylums and his writings on the reform of manners; indeed his humane outlook has been roundly condemned by Michel Foucault. At the time, though, he was known for his sparkling bons mots about art, recorded in his famous Thursday diaries.

The Hay Wain was not sold after being exhibited. Constable had to struggle for recognition. Many critics condemned his pictures for their lack of finish, for not being sufficiently smooth and glossy. However, when The Hay Wain went to Paris to be shown at the Paris Salon in 1824 it was greatly admired. There Constable was seen as avant garde, as pushing at the boundaries. Chocolate box be buggered!

In the best of the paintings exhibited, Constable uses the broad template of the kind we see in The Hay Wain. There is a division into blocks of tree and cloud and sometimes a view of a sunlit meadow. A river winds past with its bank close to us, often with water flowing across and down it through a sluice and detailed vegetation poking out at us. In one form or another that is the make-up of The White Horse, 1819, The Lock, 1824, The Leaping Horse, 1825, and even the later stourless Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831; if he had finished Stoke by Nayland, 1835-7, displayed here as a full-size sketch, it would have conformed and succeeded in the same way.

Constable did not want to be seen as a local painter but that is what he was. When he was forced to depart from the Stour template he failed. Both versions of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge, 1820-5 and 1832 (the actual opening was 18th June, 1817) are a mess. The Thames is too wide, the blocks of trees or buildings too small. There is a fuss of silly detail in the foreground; from a distance it is an ill-arranged set of horizontal lines and from close up a muddle of blobbyness. Constable was a master of fitting a few people into a landscape, but here there are hundreds - the Prince Regent, the Lord Mayor, soldiers, sailors, spectators including for all I know the Hon. Anthony Dalrymple of Dalrymple Hall - and Constable does not know how to deal with them.

Constable was a master at getting rid of an unnecessary face. Look at The White Horse, 1819 and the action of the men pushing with poles to move the barge. They push and shove but there is a relaxed man with a pipe at the tiller. He does not need a face; his pipe is enough. The figure does not intrude but gives the painting scale and humanity. The horse in the barge is white because it has to be; perhaps it was but that is beside the point. Constable does not have that kind of room for manoeuvre at Waterloo Bridge. Also, though he understands clouds better than anyone since Van Ruisdael, he did not understand smoke. If you want to enjoy a painting of Waterloo Bridge you have many choices and you would not choose Constable. Besides The Opening of Waterloo Bridge is unConstable, unstable Constable.

The Chain Pier Brighton, 1826-also fails. Constable's first impressionistic sketch for it is a triumph but when he added the details of the waves and the beach the triumph collapsed. There is too much sky and not enough to offset it. It is interesting to compare his letter about Brighton with what we see here. Constable wrote to Archdeacon Fisher:

The magnificence of the sea and its ….everlasting voice is drowned in the din and lost in the tumult of stage coaches - gigs - flys, etc - and the beach is only Piccadilly ….by the sea-side. Ladies dressed and undressed - Gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on….
I looked hard at The Chain Pier Brighton but I could not see any undressed ladies, not even mere dishabillated dishabelles. Perhaps it is just as well since it was, as WOL would have said, a most blusterous day with the ladies umbrellaed against the breeze and the gentlemen in fine tan hats. Constable had anyway chosen to do the traditional "fishing boat-bobbing sea" end of the beach, a rubble of anchors and mooring posts and, of course, the ubiquitous dog.

So it's back to The Stour again. But what's wrong with that? It is an area steeped in famous incidents from British history. It was here that a packet of tea fell on Sir Thomas Lipton's head when he was fishing for apples in the Stour.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004.

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