Last week marked my Dad’s 73rd year on the planet. The Old Man had a hankering to get to see an exhibition (as he often does) of one his favourite artists, John Constable at Tate Britain. Being particularly preoccupied with rural landscapes, the interplay of light and shadow and composition, Dad has a lot in common with the Suffolk born artist. This exhibition is notable particularly because it is perhaps the first time that Constable’s impressive six-foot canvasses have been presented alongside the “sketches” and trial versions allowing you to see the choices the artist faced and the subsequent decisions he made when working on the competed piece. A contemporary of one of my favourite artists, JMW Turner, Constable had been criticised for his composition and his scaling in his early career. His solution was to form a working sketch and use it to experiment with arrangements and the lighting conditions and when he was satisfied he would work on giving each scene a sense of animation and vitality. Constable was obsessed with the land surrounding Flatford Mills on the River Stour in Suffolk and most of his works draw upon the elements he found nearby. He also lived in London and Sussex and created a particularly handsome painting of the Chain Pier in Brighton in 1827 just after it had been constructed. What was interesting for me was seeing how having locked-off the composition he then worked to achieve his snapshot of a busy waterway. Several times it struck me how cinematic the effect is. He was really crying out for a movie camera! Also I found it interesting how Constable worked at getting his most precious ideas and conceits out of his system in the rough version and almost adopting the mantra of “kill your darlings” to exorcise the ideas that were most likely to hinder the best realisation of the finished piece; like a writer hurrying through a first draft so that they can then discard the chaff for the revised version. So the composition and the lighting varies very little from the sketch to the final piece but the many figures and animals and vehicles are reconfigured (even to the point where there are noticeable over-paints when the artist changed his mind). The x-ray exhibit was particularly informative.
Whilst Contable’s creations are immensely satisfying I still get a bit frustrated (as I do with my Dad) with how narrow the range of subjects are. The exhibtion suggests that the artist failed to make it out of the south east of the UK. Suffolk is beautifully realised and the brief trips to Essex, Sussex and London are similarly exciting but I couldn’t help wondering what interpretations Constable might have made of other locations in Europe in the way his contemporaries did. Not only does the artist seem unwilling to stray beyond the UK, but he does seem to confine himself to setting each scene at or around midday (I think this was supposed to reinforce the timeless aspect of the composition) and he has the skies (wonderful as they are) peppered with clouds that may or may not threaten rain, but that are captured at a point where they fail to deliver any weather at all. But then the man was fascinated with his own set of themes and concerns like any great artist. He was also a very devoted father which must have taken up a lot of his time too. Did I mention he had a lot in common with Dad?