As the UK returns to normality, our beloved galleries and their exciting exhibition programmes are back in full force. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting ‘Late Constable’ at The Royal Academy. Running alongside the Summer Exhibition, ‘Late Constable’ explores the artist best-known for his lush, British countryside scenes during the last twelve years of his life and career.
Prior to visiting ‘Late Constable’, I must admit that I did not know much about John Constable. I was familiar with some of his famous works, such as ‘The Hay Wain’ and ‘Dedham Vale’, but had never paid much attention to the person responsible for capturing the English countryside at its best, or even his artistic technique and development. I have always associated Constable’s works with simplistic, harmonious pre-industrial scenes when, in fact, Constable was an artist with so much more depth and talent than we often credit him for.
Whilst The Summer Exhibition dominates in colour and mixed media in the main galleries, ‘Late Constable’ waits patiently for its visitors in the The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. Over fifty works, including oil paintings, watercolours, sketches and studies, have been brought together by the curators in order to highlight a hugely turbulent period of the artist’s life and career. I was certainly made aware that this was not another watered-down retrospective when I first entered the exhibition. Light and dark, life and death, and grief and acceptance are the major dichotomies at play here.
At the point of the exhibition’s beginning, 1825, Constable had already studied at The Royal Academy as a probationer. However, his successful studies within the Academy were not truly reflective of what was to come. During the early 1800s, pastoral paintings were not highly-regarded and time and time again, Constable’s works would be rejected from The Academy. The artist would even resort to taking up portraiture just to make ends meet financially; an activity he absolutely loathed.
However, in 1816, John Constable married his childhood sweetheart Maria Elizabeth Bicknell and just three years later he would sell his first major painting ‘The White Horse’. ‘The White Horse’ formed one painting of a series of ‘six-footers’. These six-foot canvases are colossal and truly overwhelming, but completely showcase Constable’s skill as a landscape painter. It was these works which paved the way for his acceptance into the Royal Academy.
Unfortunately, Maria’s ill-health shadowed over Constable and his career at the time of these successes. The family, which included seven children, moved from their home in Hampstead to Brighton in an effort to restore her health through sea air. In 1928, Maria passed away from tuberculosis and from this point onwards, Constable would be in mourning for the rest of his life.
Just a year after Maria’s death, Constable was elected into the Royal Academy as an academician and his artistic technique began to become expressive and dynamic – much like his contemporary, J.M.W. Turner. It is quite clear that this was an individual struggling to contain his raw emotion within his work as melancholy seeps through each canvas.
One of the most interesting, yet utterly haunting, images on display at ‘Late Constable’ was his watercolour ‘Netley Abbey by Moonlight, c.1833’. Constable’s brushstrokes here are controlled and yet totally expressive. The attention to detail to which Constable has given the Abbey is incredible and it is such detail which enables the viewer to be transported into the ruins of the West Front, engulfed by the wild trees which surround it.
Constable had visited Netley Abbey on his honeymoon with Maria in 1816 and it was during this trip where he prepared sketches and etchings of the Abbey. It was not until after Maria’s death, however, that he completed the watercolour and, if you look closely, you can spot a ghostly figure on the left standing beside a gravestone. The question of whether this figure is Constable’s depiction of Maria begs to be asked.
During the 1830s, Constable enjoyed his tenure as a Royal Academician and still exhibited his works at the Annual Exhibitions. His works remained successful and he had secured a reputation as a highly regarded artist and teacher. Throughout this period, Constable experimented with his artistic style and his works became more ambitious and diverse in subject matter and technique. The sentiment of acceptance runs through the final exhibition room of ‘Late Constable’ and one could argue that Constable was coming to terms with the death of his beloved wife, and his own defeats within his career. By the time of his unexpected death in 1837, John Constable had most definitely been accepted by the 19th Century art world in Britain.