During the Christmas break, while reading Fiona Stafford’s engrossing The Long, Long Life of Trees, I was also hearing the news from Sheffield, where residents were outraged when private contractors, hired by the city council under a cost-cutting PFI, began cutting down hundreds of trees lining city streets. Now, luminaries such as Jarvis Cocker and Chris Packham are fronting a campaign to save Sheffield’s roadside trees. In the Guardian the other day, Patrick Barkham was writing about the pensioners being prosecuted under anti-trade union legislation for peacefully opposing the felling of trees in their street. His report included this striking statement by furious local and one-time member of Pulp, Richard Hawley:
This hasn’t got anything to do with politics. I’m a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter. I was on picket lines with my dad. I don’t view protesting against the unnecessary wastage of trees as all of a sudden I’ve become fucking middle class. I know right from wrong and chopping down shit that helps you breathe is evidently wrong. We’re not talking about left or right. We’re talking about the body. It boils down to something really simple. Do you like breathing? It’s quite good. It’s called being alive. What we exhale they inhale and what we inhale they exhale. The end.
In my previous post, writing about John Constable’s oil sketches, I noted how he would make meticulous notes of the weather conditions at the time he painted. I remarked that this reminded me of Kurt Jackson, who does exactly the same thing – often including the observation in the title of a painting, and sometimes inscribing the annotation on the painting itself. (In the example above, he does both.) The day before seeing the Constable exhibition at the V&A I had been to the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street where, downstairs, there were the remnants of a display mounted by the gallery to coincide with the publication of Kurt Jackson Sketchbooks, in which – interestingly in the light of the V&A’s exhibition of oil sketches from Constable’s sketchbook – Jackson asserts that his sketchbooks should be regarded as seriously as his paintings, prints and sculpture – as a body of work in their own right.
The book draws on a selection of twenty sketchbooks, all of them from 2007, and offers a rare insight into the mind of one who I regard as the most important living British landscape artist. Compelled to draw every day, Jackson would never contemplate travelling without pens, pencils, paints and some kind of sketch book. Indeed, in the first chapter we accompany Jackson on several train journeys as he guides us through the drawings, paintings and collages that he makes as he travels – some of his wife Caroline sitting opposite.
We begin to see how Jackson’s sketchbooks are vital to the development and completion of his paintings. A hastily drawn image helps him to work out what he wants to achieve on canvas, or simply captures something when there isn’t enough time to paint or draw properly. Like many other artists, Jackson regards his sketchbooks as an invaluable visual diary of his life (the book opens with a quotation from van Gogh: ‘My sketchbook is a witness of what I am experiencing, scribbling things whenever they happen’).
The book consists of a series of narratives written by Jackson in which he guides the reader through sketches made on journeys that have yielded several series of paintings – from the Scilly Isles and the Cornish coast to the Glastonbury Festival, the river Dart, Jura and the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland, France and a grand voyage by train to Greece.
As a long time admirer of the many and varied seascapes that Jackson has painted at Priest Cove, near his home in West Penwith, I was particularly struck by his atmospheric account – in ‘Cornish coast’, the second chapter – of how those paintings have come to be:
I’m sitting outside the boathouse, my hut on Priest Cove. It’s a tatty, ethnic vernacular shed constructed out of driftwood, beach stones and corrugated iron, one of a series of similar buildings terraced up the cliff and around the foreshore of the cove, built by and for generations of fishermen. I use it as one of my studios, damp and full of rodents and wrens and ferns, but providing me with shelter from the harshest of elements and the most curious of visitors. I sit on a green plastic suburban garden chair, and stare out at the horizon and the glare of the Atlantic. My pencil follows the skyline, straight as a ruler, which joins Land’s End’s distant promontory, then drops down onto Carn Gloose’s jagged lion’s head of a granite cliff, before dropping into the cove. I continue along the foreshore with its round, dinosaur-egg boulders and pebbles and those angular rocks, bisected by the straight-edged, man-made slipway. A continuous line of pencil that leads the eye semicircularly from sky to water’s edge.
A thousand drawings and doodles have happened here, a thousand paintings over the last twenty years or so. Sketchpads full of my time invested in this one place; days and days pressed between the hand-worn covers. This place has become the focal point, the muse for a lot of my work, with the seasonal, tidal and diurnal changes and subtleties; the local fishing activities, the visitors, the fauna, the flora: Porth Juste Cove, Priest Cove, ‘the cove of St Just Cove’.
distant faint oystercatchers call marks the low-watermark, the sea’s Cornish murmur the sea beat, Cornish spleenwort, rock pipit, sea beet thrift, an optimistic gull
I turn over the page; my pencil follows the edge of an incoming wave, rolling into and across the cove then playing with the water’s surface – a tracery of lines – the sea’s surface, the light reflecting off it, the patterns formed by the foam’s backwash and swell, swash and wash, the agitation and effervescence, the stripes and streaks, squares and circles. There’s the constant motion of the water the persistent wind, the clouds drifting in from the Atlantic; then there’s a pair of crows rooting together amongst the rock pools. A crying gull sweeping past and a brief visit from a family of excited, excitable choughs, squeaking like a kiddie’s toy. All this is woven into my tangle of lines, strokes and marks some spontaneous, some careful and following detail, an observation, and my intimate awareness of this place.
Bees buzz in the vetch, grammersows crawl over my feet, sea beet and spleenwort move in the breeze.
Another page, another medium. A splash of watercolour, the pooling and puddling of clouds; a sweep of the Atlantic, some drips and dribbles off the palette to locate and define the water’s rocky edge; paper-white breaking surf. I pick up some scraps of paper, the remains of my previous visits from off the floor of the huts stained with the ochre earth of Cape Cornwall and the rainwater and seawater seeping and dripping into my semi-porous hut. Collaged onto the page, they replicate the geological textures and forms out there in front of me. Granite, greenstone, mudstone, basalt, veins and lodes of ores and quartz; recently sea-broken and exposed rocks, sea-worn and smoothened stones. Erosion and … so much information, so many other processes – an ecology of interlocking worlds and times how can this all be put on one page; captured and celebrated, noted and described? Ink, pastel, crayon, pencil, glue, gouache, acrylic, watercolour and collage; an eclectic diversity a desperate scramble and scrabble to attempt to reign in this diversity around me, into and onto my page. A plethora of seaweed greens and browns, communities of tinted shellfish, rock pools of intensity and sparkle, dots and dashes of pure-earth pigment. Glassy basalt, vivid orange granite, dull mudstone; gunmetal grey ocean, marine blue, sea green. Pipit tweet oystercatcher scream, raven honk. Sea whisper, murmur, mordros. This most ordinary of coves has slowly and gradually fixated my attention, fascinated and taken hold of me to become a place that’s extraordinary, rich and full, an inspiration a source. It has stamped its personality on my work, and I in turn have added my signature to its bottom right-hand corner.
chough flies by grammersows crawling in the paint wren singing to me
The chapter is illustrated with examples of the sketches Jackson has made at Priest Cove – several, as shown here, inscribed with details of the weather conditions prevailing at the time. One, made on 11 March 2011 is inscribed, ‘And on the day that the tsunami hits the Pacific you watch the incoming tide here on the Atlantic with a shiver of bated breath’.
In an informative introductory chapter, ‘Between Artist and Place’ Alan Livingstone discusses key aspects of Jackson’s working practice and his approach to his art. He notes that, like many artists, Jackson is very particular in his choice of sketchbooks (interestingly, some are square – the format of very many of his paintings). Livingstone observes that, in addition to drawings and paintings, the sketchbooks also contain mixed-media collages that include materials such as menus, tickets and scraps of newspapers, glued in with Pritt stick: the ephemera enhancing Jackson’s record of the moment.
For Jackson, drawing is of central importance, and Livingstone notes the deep pleasure that the artist takes in constantly honing his drawing and observational skills. The book contains many examples of the clarity and economy of Jackson’s line drawing, ranging from a minimalist drawing of White Island in the Scilly Isles – comprising no more than half a dozen lines in coloured crayon over a watercolour wash – to drawings of his wife made on a train journey, and the detailed observation of a water shrew discovered dead in his garden. Amongst the many fine rapid impressions is this one, of Orwell’s old hideout, Barnhill, on Jura made in May 2011.
Livingstone discusses what is perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jackson’s work – his marked emotional response to ‘place’. Consistently and over a long period of time, he has shown an affinity with a number of favoured locations – the far west of Cornwall, but also English rivers (such as the Dart, the Stour and the Avon), and places in France and Greece to which he has returned repeatedly. The sketchbooks reveal drawings of the same place, recorded at different times of the day, under variable weather conditions. There may be scribbled notes on particular trees, hedges, or birds. As Livingstone observes, nothing is too small to escape the close attention of an artist with a degree in Zoology. Like John Constable who believed that ‘art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, Jackson works outdoors, going to nature at its source to record changing weather patterns and every small detail of the local environment. Livingstone compares his attitude to that of Andy Goldsworthy, who believes that his work is ‘so rooted in the history and soul of a place that it cannot be separated from where it is made’.
Two paintings on show when I visited the Redfern Gallery demonstrate this aspect of Jackson’s work. And a touch of Autumn zooms in on a section of Cornish hedgerow, portrayed as a patchwork of colours, while Sunshine seed time, with it masses of grasses, seed heads and umbelliferae reminded me of Durer’s study of a clump of turf.
Priest Cove, says Livingstone, is the perfect environment for Jackson:
Wild, ever changing and remote. ‘The relationship between artist and place is unflinching, with no quarter asked, no quarter given. Working from his boatshed studio. he finds endless challenges in recording the extreme variations in the dramatic conditions that affect this primitive Celtic landscape. Determined to record the highs and lows of each visit, Jackson believes it is fundamental that his response is honest and totally derived from the experience of ‘being there’.
A good example of the art that emerges from such a commitment might be Squall, a painting that, suitably, is now in the possession of the Met Office.
Given that so many of Jackson’s paintings are seascapes that, almost uncannily, capture the sea in its ever-changing aspect – its myriad surface textures, colours and effects of light falling on water – it is interesting to read Livingstone assessment of this central aspect of Jackson’s work:
Endlessly fascinated by the complex visual effects generated by light fleeting across water, Jackson has persistently ‘confronted’ the sea and attempted to record and glorify the timeless mystery of sky and sea coming together on the horizon. In formal terms, the seascape provides a limited range of timeless compositional options. In addition to the size and shape of the canvas, the key artistic decision relates to the proportionate horizontal split between sea and sky. Jackson’s constant experimentation with these proportions, and therefore the positioning of the horizon, heightens the drama of the scene and challenges the spectator to assess and reassess their viewpoint.
To illustrate what Livingstone says, take these two paintings, featured in the latest collection of Jackson’s work – Kurt Jackson: Recent Work – published by the Redfern Gallery:
Livingstone writes that Kurt Jackson is aware of the critical prejudice that is attached to landscape painting, but observes that for Jackson his artistic practice is rooted in his values and beliefs concerning the environment and the need to live a sustainable lifestyle: ‘the beliefs that drive him, including the intellectual centrality of place, the need to understand and respect that place and the importance of living in a sustainable way’. This is how Jackson expressed his beliefs when introducing a recent exhibition – This Place – consisting of paintings of the place where he lives, St Just in West Penwith:
Over the last 20 years or so my work has evolved into ‘projects’ – each a body of work that explores and is inspired by a particular route [a river, a prehistoric track way], a workplace [quarry, mine, fishermen, farmer], a group of fauna or flora [the crows, the trees] or as in this exhibition, a particular place. A dedication to and celebration of the environment is intrinsic to both my politics and my art and a holistic involvement with this subject provides the springboard for everything I make. My practice involves both plein air and studio work and embraces an extensive range of materials and techniques.
This project is about the place where I live – in the far West of Cornwall. This is the most Westerly town in Britain and the furthest town from London outside of Scotland. It is a wild place, a place on the margins; geographically isolated and battered by the elements. It is a post-industrial town in a post-industrial landscape, with a fading fishing industry, a struggling farming community and an expanding population. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place, a landscape of granite in the transitional space between the Atlantic cliffs and the Cornish moors.
This place stands as a microcosm for the world at large (Local = Global). As any place it is defined by the complex interactions between the human inhabitants, the flora and fauna, the geology, the elements, the culture and history and the resulting evolution of a community (the psychogeography). With ‘This Place’, I chose to engage with a number of pertinent local issues to illustrate these interactions, for instance, sustainability – I accompanied Cape Cornwall fishermen on their boats to produce a series of spontaneous mixed media works covering their small-scale fishing practices, the work was relevant to Greenpeace’s ‘Defend Oceans’ campaigns, and was used by them to launch their latest campaign, then biodiversity awareness – through a series of works, and with support from Cornwall Wildlife Trust, I celebrated local indigenous species, including the Cornish Moneywort – an extremely rare plant found only in this region. And finally post-industrialism – St Just is a town founded on tin. […]
Like all of my artistic practice I approached these issues from an environmental perspective – I feel that successful environmentalism stems from a need to source from, and be faithful to the local community and the surrounding biodiversity.
At the Redfern Gallery, there were several still lifes, made last autumn, which reflected Jackson’s commitment to detailing the local environment through the changing seasons- with an additional touch of humour. Sprigs of brambles adorned with blackberries were a focus of Jackson’s attention last autumn, and he painted several inserted into empty Marmite jars.
Jackson works in several media, and there were several bramble works created in bronze, tin or copper. Kurt Jackson added this note for the exhibition:
When the blackberries appear you know that summer is coming to an end; when the blackberries have been spat on by the devil, you know winter is on the way. Along with the leaves changing their colour they are the archetypal sign of autumn. Being the last wild food still gathered by everyone they symbolise that contact, that connection with the seasonal rhythms of the countryside still hanging by a thread here in Britain. With their vivid unripe scarlet and crimsons contrasting with the indigo and black ripened berries; the viridian leaves in their repeating threesomes and those off white almost pink delicate petals framed and protected by the crisscrossing lattices of briar and bramble – this is where the whitethroats nest and the bees buzz; so much to be drawn into, so much to paint.
John Constable perhaps suffers from over-familiarity: countless reproductions, from postcards to biscuit tins, of The Hay Wain or Dedham Vale. Those large, highly polished oil paintings were produced for the ‘finished’ picture market of patrons and Royal Academy exhibitions and, to our modern eyes that prefer suggestion to representation, they can appear just a shade too formal and conservative.
But Constable was far from being a traditionalist, quietly rebelling in his work methods against a culture that preferred landscapes to be oil paintings executed in the studio, rather than impressions from nature captured in the open air. In London a fortnight ago, we had a look at the exhibition of Constable’s oil sketches at the V&A, The Art of Seeing Nature. The rooms in which they are displayed shimmer with their freshness and vitality, revealing how Constable captured ‘one brief moment caught from fleeting time’ in his free and vigorous brushwork.
Constable told his biographer CR Leslie, ‘When I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture’. Working outdoors was essential, he said, and he wasn’t satisfied simply to follow a formula:
The world is wide. No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other. … In a sketch, there is nothing but the one state of mind – that which you were in at the time.
What’s on show at the V&A are oil sketches that were Constable’s equivalent to a diary entry. They were usually done outdoors, in a sketchbook (a facsimile of one is on display). These sketchbooks were his storehouse of images. Often he made a sketch for its own sake, with no finished painting in mind.
In his sketches, Constable sought the truth of nature in the fleeting effects of light and shadow, the subtly shifting hues of seemingly plain surfaces and simple areas of greenery. He captured these effects, ‘impressions’, on small pieces of canvas, board or prepared paper. 49 of them are on display here, oil sketches that trace the development of his style from early depictions of his native Suffolk (roughly, 1809-21) to the atmospheric studies of trees, clouds and seascapes painted around Hampstead and Brighton between 1820 and 1834.
Autumnal Sunset (1812) is one of the early sketches. Constable had lived in London since 1799, but continued to regard his birthplace, East Bergholt House (built by his father, a wealthy corn merchant, when Flatford Mill became too small for his growing family) as his home. He painted views from the front and back of the house on many occasions and once wrote,‘This place was the origin of my Fame’. Increasingly, he sought to capture the transient effects of light or weather at different seasons or times of day. This scene looks westwards from East Bergholt. When the mezzotint of this sketch was published in 1812, Constable complained to the engraver, ‘The Evening… is spoiled owing to your having fooled with the rooks – they were the chief features.’
There’s an oil sketch of the house (below) in the Tate collection – done in 1809, even at this early stage the brushwork delineating the clouds and the hedge in the foreground is wonderfully free and expressive.
A Hayfield near East Bergholt at Sunset is another sketch made in 1812. Constable explained his choice of an evening subject: ‘I do not study much abroad in the middle of these very hot bright days…last year I almost put my eyes out by that pastime’.
Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance (1811), with its bold brush strokes, is one of the earliest oil sketches to demonstrate the vibrancy and originality of Constable’s mature style.
Landscape with a Double Rainbow (1812) is painted on a torn piece of paper laid on canvas, and reflects Constable’s fascination with rainbows, from a scientific as well as artistic point of view. He was highly knowledgeable about ‘this most beautiful Phenomenon of Light’, and rainbows frequently appear in his later works.
Of course, Constable wasn’t unique in making open air oil sketches. As Mark Evans explains in the book that accompanies the V&A exhibition, by the 18th century oil sketching was widespread in Europe. Before Constable, the most accomplished British exponent of the landscape oil sketch was Thomas Jones from Radnorshire in mid-Wales. The Tate has a wonderful view of the hills around his home – Pencerrig – painted in oil on wrapping paper in 1772. Best of all are the oil sketches he made in Naples.
Constable once advised a visitor to his studio, ‘never do anything without nature before you. See those weeds and the dock leaves? I should not attempt to introduce them into a picture without having them before me’. Study of Foliage (1828) is typical of studies that Constable made throughout his career, often as simply an exercise in observation.
Central to Constable’s practice was drawing and painting directly from nature. As well as making outdoor sketches like this one – Plants by a Wall (1830) – he copied from plant cuttings that he kept in his studio. Such studies would sometimes be incorporated into the foreground of finished landscape paintings.
These sketches strike the modern viewer as more than studies – we are used to the unvarnished, inconclusive truth now, more than a century after Impressionism. Perceptively, the German critic Julius Meier-Graefe wrote in 1908 that Constable’s oil sketches are:
Free from the utilitarianism which the thought of his future picture imposes on the artist. [They are] made for their own sakes. … Their technique is peculiarly their own. Their form does not permit of completion. … He is never greater than here, and I say greater advisedly, for the particles of paint are much more roughly treated than in the pictures. The sketches were a kind of journal … painted records of events which turned on atmosphere and light.
The painter John Piper stressed Constable’s modernity writing in 1937, on the centenary of the artist’s death:
His sketches mean more to us today than his big paintings in the end; they are so complete, vivid and timeless. … Constable … deeply affected the course of the [landscape] tradition and made the Impressionist movement, and ultimately the whole of the modern movement, possible and necessary.
From 1819 until 1826, Constable and his wife Maria rented summer accommodation in the village of Hampstead, living there permanently from 1827. This was still a rural location at the time, and high above the city, Constable took to the open landscape of Hampstead Heath, which provided the subject for several large paintings, including Trees at Hampstead, The Path to Church (1821), a study of a stand of trees – largely elm – each one as distinctively defined as in a group portrait. Constable described the view as ‘a natural (but highly elegant) group of trees, ashes, elms, & oak &c – which will be of quite as much service as if I had bought the field and hedge row’.
Study of Tree Trunks (1821) is an outdoor sketch that brilliantly captures the effect of broken sunlight falling through foliage. In May 1817 Constable expressed his delight in such subjects: ‘Every tree seems full of blossom of some kind & the surface of the ground seems quite lovely’. The figure at the right may be the artist’s wife, with one of their children.
For some time now, one of my favourite Constable paintings has been Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, painted in 1824 – and here I am, standing before it in this exhibition. Constable made many studies of trees in the early 1820s, mainly around Hampstead. This is so realistic that it has an almost photographic quality. When William Blake saw a drawing of some trees by Constable, he announced ‘Why, this is not drawing, but inspiration!’ Lucian Freud was certainly inspired by it, and had admired it since the age of 17. He made an etching after Constable’s sketch in 2003, and wrote that year in his book on Constable:
I’d seen the little painting of the tree-trunk, close-up in the V&A … and I thought what a good idea. That’s the thing, I thought. Trees. They are everywhere. Do one of those. A close-up. Real bark. So I took my easel out and put it down in front of a tree and found it completely impossible.
Constable wrote that his art was ‘to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, and that ‘the landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind – no arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty’. Constable’s friend and biographer C. R. Leslie recalled: ‘I have seen him admire a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch up a beautiful child in his arms’.
Study of Sky and Trees with a Red House at Hampstead dates from 1821, and is one of a series of studies of the sky painted that September. In a letter of 20 September 1821, Constable explains what induced him to undertake this series of sky and tree studies. He says:
I have likewise made many skies and effects- for I wish it could be said of me as Fuselli says of Rembrandt, ‘he followed nature in her calmest abodes and could pluck a flower on every hedge- yet he was born to cast a stedfast eye on the bolder phenomena of nature’. We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & colour- as is always the case in such seasons as the present.
In a letter in October 1821, Constable wrote of the importance of skies in his paintings:
I have done a good deal of skying- I am determined to conquer all difficulties and that most arduous one among the rest. And now talking of skies … that Landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids.
Constable’s aim in making these studies was to depict the sky at a particular moment in time, and under certain weather conditions, just as a portrait-painter might try and capture some fleeting but characteristic expression on a sitter’s face. Often these studies are annotated with precise details of the time and weather conditions in which they were painted. So, for example, Study of Sky and Trees, with its broad, sweeping brushstrokes, is annotated, ‘Sepr. 24th . . 10 o’clock morning wind S.W. warm & fine till afternoon, when it rained & wind got more to the north’. The day before, we had been to the Redfern Gallery to see a display of recent works by Kurt Jackson – in my view, the greatest contemporary landscape artist in Britain – and reading Constable’s meticulous notes of the weather conditions at the time he painted reminded me reminded me that Kurt Jackson does exactly the same thing – often including the observation in the title of a painting, and sometimes inscribing the annotation on the painting itself. (More about the Kurt Jackson exhibition in the next post.)
Study of a House Amid Trees, Evening (1823) is a view of Judges Walk, an avenue of lime trees overlooking the west end of Hampstead Heath. Constable was fascinated by the last gleams of the setting sun shining through the trees and casting pools of light across the grass in front of the house.
Interestingly, though Constable’s interest in landscape painting was a deeply felt response to the beauty and variety of nature, he was also deeply interested in the science that explained what he was seeing. ‘Painting is with me but another word for feeling’ he wrote to his friend John Fisher, but, he continued, ‘In such an age as this painting should be understood, not looked on with blind wonder, nor considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical.’
Howard Coutts filled in some detail about Constable’s scientific interests in a V&A publication:
The most striking example of his ‘scientific’ analysis of nature is the group of cloud studies that he executed at Hampstead in the years 1821-2. They depict the sky at a particular moment in time, and under certain weather conditions, just as a portrait-painter might try and capture some fleeting but particularly characteristic expression on a sitter’s face. Often these studies are annotated with precise details of the time and weather conditions in which they were painted. The immediate stimulus to this group of cloud studies may have been the work of the meteorologist Luke Howard, whose two volumes on The Climate of London were published in 1818-20. They contained a reprint of his paper of 1802 ‘On the Modifications of Clouds’ in which he divided cloud formations into three categories that are still used today; cirrus, cumulus, and stratus. Constable certainly knew of these categories; since he owned a copy of Thomas Forster’s Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena in which they are described, and moreover one of his cloud studies in the museum seems to be inscribed with the word ‘cirrus’. However, Constable’s cloud studies should not be seen simply as illustrations of these categories, but as parallel investigations of his own. He is particularly concerned to show not just the appearance of the sky at any particular moment, but its effect on the scene and the way in which other objects on the sky-line, such as the trees, respond to it. For Constable the landscape was an organic unity, no part of which could be studied in isolation from another.
Constable’s aim in producing these studies was to improve his understanding of a hitherto neglected part of the landscape, the sky, which he felt had an expressive value of its own. He told Fisher that he had often been advised to consider the sky as ‘a white sheet drawn behind the objects’ but for him it was ‘the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment in a landscape. These studies were not intended for any particular landscape by Constable, but the understanding of the structure of the sky that he gained from them was put to good use in the dramatic backgrounds of Hadleigh Castle (1829) and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) of his later years.
In October 1822 Constable wrote that he had made ‘about 50 carefull studies of skies tolerably large’. This one is inscribed on the reverse: ‘looking S.E. noon. Wind very brisk. & effect bright & fresh. Clouds. moving very fast. With occasional very bright openings to the blue’.
This is one of Constable’s best-known cloud studies. Unusually, he painted the sheet blue first and then added the clouds. It shows the wispy cirrus clouds above 7,000 metres and the denser cumulus below 2,000 metres. Constable owned a copy of Researches About Atmospheric Phaenomena by Thomas Forster (published in 1815), and his use of the word ‘cirrus’ suggests that he was acquainted with the new terminology of meteorology.
Another sketch that reflects Constable’s growing interest in different skies is A View at Hampstead: Evening (1822) which depicts an approaching storm over Hampstead Heath.
Although now entitled A Garden with a Shed at Hampstead, it seems more consistent to treat this 1821 sketch as one of the series of sky studies made by Constable at Hampstead. With its free brushwork, the intention of the sketch is evidently to portray a dark stormy effect of sky. This informal view of a back yard may depict the shed at 2 Lower Terrace, Hampstead. Constable described it in August 1821: ‘I have cleared a small shed in the garden, which held sand, coal, mops & brooms & that is literally a coal hole, and have made it a workshop and a place of refuge’.
In May 1824, Constable arranged for his wife to spend some time by the sea in Brighton. She had been suffering from ill-health, and the doctor advised sea air. Constable stayed in Brighton with his family between July and October, before the whole family returned to London in November. It was during those months that Constable painted the exquisite oil sketches that are, perhaps, the jewels of this exhibition.
By this time, Brighton was a large and fashionable resort, due to the growing popularity of bathing and belief in the therapeutic qualities of sea air. Constable, however, was not impressed, writing in a letter: ‘In short there is nothing here for a painter but the breakers-& sky-which have been lovely indeed and always varying’.
In Brighton Beach, painted on the fifth birthday of his eldest daughter Maria, Constable portrays a strong easterly breeze propelling sailing boats across the sea, and dispersing the last traces of dark cloud disappearing at the extreme right.
In this remarkably minimal and impressionistic companion sketch, Constable uses the long and thin format (widescreen, we might say) to show the extent of the beach and the expanse of sea and sky. Two solitary women trek its length. Their bent backs suggest the squad blowing from the sea on a wet and windy summer’s day.
On a later visit to the south coast, probably in 1828, Constable painted the sun setting over Shoreham Bay, west of Brighton. The location was praised as ‘one of the most pleasant and rural situations in the vicinity’. The sketch is inscribed ’22 May’ – so it was painted at a time when the health of his wife was declining. Maria died six months later.
After 1829, Constable stopped using oils for outdoor sketching, instead resorting to the more spontaneous medium of watercolour. So, how did these oil sketches come into the possession of the V&A? In 1900 full-size oil sketches for the paintings The Hay Wain and The Leaping Horse were bequeathed to the V&A. Earlier, in 1888, Constable’s daughter Isabel made a major gift of his work that included 92 smaller oil sketches. It is these two bequests that form the basis of this display.
The large oil sketches for The Leaping Horse and The Hay Wain are on display in an adjacent room and are of considerable interest. Their rapid, forceful brush strokes convey a vigour and expressiveness that missing from the finished paintings. Their vigour is even more apparent following recent cleaning that has revealed the original colours and tonalities. The finished pictures differ hardly at all in composition, but it is the sketches, with their rapid brush strokes and broader treatment that better suits modern taste.
I’m going to finish with another oil sketch made at Brighton, probably in 1824. Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, is not in the V&A exhibition (I think it belongs to the Royal Academy collection) but with its slashing dark brushstrokes it captures the immediacy of an exploding cumulus shower at sea, and is a supreme example of the modernity of his oil sketches. Clive Bell, who organised the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in London in 1910, considered Constable’s oil sketches ‘perhaps the most brilliant and characteristic part of his output’. Sir Kenneth Clark was of the same mind, asserting that the sketches ‘are Constable’s supreme achievement’.
Today, on our Suffolk trip, we ventured just over the border into Essex to Flatford Mill and walked along Dedham Vale to the village of Dedham. We were lucky with the weather – the sunny, warm spring days continue. It was a glorious walk – the vale was a ‘fair field full of folk’ on foot and punting on the water. There were close encounters with swans.
With the help of map from the Tate Constable Country website, I was able to stand in the same position as Constable when he painted several of his views of Flatford Mill and photograph the scene as it is today (remarkably unchanged).
Constable’s gritty depiction of rural life with workers going about their business rankled many of his contemporaries whopreferred a more idealised view of the English countryside. Apparantly he played a bit fast and loose with the cottage (in the painting the roof is a slightly different shape). He was constantly retouching his pictures. Evidence of this is the ghostly dark patch at the front of the painting that was once a horse before he changed his mind.
John Constable found most of his inspiration close to his childhood home in the Stour Valley in Suffolk. Living in East Bergholt, his father Golding Constable, a wealthy miller, often had business at nearby Flatford Mill.
“But I should paint my own places best… I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter. That is I often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil.” (Constable, from a display at Bridge Cottage, Flatford Mill)
‘The landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty.’ (Constable)