Constable at the RA
Everything normal is unimaginable eventually.
This edition of ‘Paintings!!’ is a short response to ‘Late Constable’, an exhibition now showing at the Royal Academy in London. Since it reproduces a lot of images, you might find it easier to read on the Substack website.
The Royal Academy is currently showing three rooms of paintings and studies by John Constable, all completed during the latter stages of his career. They are agonised works of internal frenzy. Onyx streams and ruined towers give on to paths lapped by the quagmire of labouring boots. A pattern of light takes hold, quite as distinctive as Caravaggio’s slanted diagonal shaft: the immediate foreground is cast in the barely-credible dark of an impending midday storm, while an intermittence of weak sunlight illuminates the middle distance. A better day is breaking, somewhere, nearby but definitively elsewhere, with cloudbursts and low skies beyond: more darkness, more rain.
Constable’s full-size preparatory canvases are displayed alongside the more finished pieces he submitted to the Academy. (An accompanying booklet methodically details how Constable was rejected over and over again as a prospective academician.) In these ‘six-footers’ paint is thickly applied, and a hail of off-white highlights mark the rough strokes: from a distance the dark green leaves, mud and ivy are seen as though through a blizzard of static or dirty snow. This technique finds its way more and more into his finished work. In A Famhouse Near The Water’s Edge, the world will not stay still, it is shredded by the intensity with which it receives and gives back the light.
A Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge (‘On the Stour’), c. 1830–6.
It’s this peculiar lack of resolution that makes Constable such a strange painter. I could not find a distance at which the whole canvas would shimmer into clarity, but coming close up I felt a constant desire to step back – like being unable to find the right focus point on a pair of binoculars. The eye moves between passages of great poetic force – an icy black stream bubbling over a stone falls, or an ascending alpscape of grey, white and navy sky between arched October trees, in The Leaping Horse – and though it gradually conceives an emotional whole, it can’t help but flinch from place to place. Compare the room-flooding serenity of a Bellini altarpiece with these paintings and you’ll find that the air in the Academy hums with agitation. They refuse the idea that the eye can ever be done with looking.
The Leaping Horse, 1825.
There is one moment of stillness – in a watercolour of Stonehenge, whose blue sky rings like a high, clear bell. It has the intensity of a symbolist piece; I thought of Wieland Wagner’s famous sets for Bayreuth in the ’50s. The curators have given it an entire wall to itself. The broad sweeps of cloudburst recall Constable’s rainbows, as well as the broad-brush study of rainy skies over the English sea that gives this exhibition its poster.
The pictures in the show that moved me most were the studies of Hampstead, especially the one, not reproduced here, with a distant view of the dome of St. Paul’s. I can imagine London as a city dense with medieval spires, because I’ve seen maps that approximate an imaginary view into London from without. What we don’t have, that I know of, is the view out: what the northern hills of Hampstead would have looked like, seen from a church tower in The City – swept with tracks of mud and the smoke from farms, dotted about by hedgerows and woods and distant flocks of animals. The lost geography and relief of London’s surroundings.
I live in Finsbury Park, in a narrow, dark street of terraced houses, with views onto more houses on both sides of the flat. I know this was countryside not so long ago, but still find it impossible to imagine. What will happen in my lifetime, to this environment and all others, will make my world as unthinkable to later generations as Constable’s is to me. I am glad he was there in Hampstead, to document the internal life of that landscape on a particular day. Of course, it pains me to think of what’s been lost.
Visual records from Constable’s time and before are sparse. Our world is documented at an inch-specific level by constant photography, satellite imagery, detailed digital maps, precise meteorological records. It won’t be hard for future generations to discover what our world looked like. But we still need painters if we want them to know what it meant.
Modern view of London from Hampstead Heath.
Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow, 1836.
Late Constable is at The Royal Academy until 13 February 2022. It is, unfortunately, worth the £19-21 entrance fee and I recommend it.
I won’t ever be using this newsletter to plug stuff that doesn’t relate to paintings, but it seems reasonable to assume that anyone reading this is at least interested in stuff I have to say about paintings. I have a few pieces on paintings forthcoming, which I will send out in a short email. I think it’s kind of mercenary to do that without including at least some supplementary material, which hopefully will lessen your sense that someone is prodding you in the ribs with the copy of the paper containing their latest piece: rustle rustle, shove shove. We are gonna try some stupid stuff at some point too, which should be fun.