“Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night” was painted by John Constable (1776-1837) for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1829. It’s one of his ‘six-footers’, a size intended to not only raise his own profile but that of landscape painting. As John Rothenstein writes in An Introduction to English Painting: “Like Turner, [Constable] thought of landscape as the equal of history painting; indeed, as a kind of history painting.” Yet, unlike Turner, Constable’s work is also full of very autobiography, memory and personal emotion.
Hadleigh Castle; a 13th century ruin on the Essex Coast, its remaining twin towers have fallen into decay. In the painting we can see out to the Thames estuary as Constable noted in a letter: [the] castle… commands a view of the Kent hills, the nore and north foreland & look[s] many miles to the sea. The sky is full of dark dramatic clouds slowly clearing away to allow rays of the morning’s early sun to break through. In turn the land itself is made up of shadowed areas and light patches – and it’s in the light areas that we have scenes of the cow-man with his cattle and a shepherd walking along with his collie-dog.
It’s very much a picture of “England” – from the ancient historic castle to the Thames Estuary and sea trade, from rural workers to the ever changing weather.
Like Turner, Constable was inspired by the work of Claude Lorrain and recognised that sky and weather were essential elements in the ‘feel’ and ‘meaning’ of landscape painting.
Though if you are going to ‘translate’ Claude to the British landscape, then his perfect blue skies are not going to come along very often; if you look through Constable’s work via artuk.org it’s all clouds, storm and rainbows.
It is also important to recognise what Constable doesn’t paint. This was a particularly dramatic period in British social and political life and part of this newly germinating interest in landscape was because of both national and international politics. On the international side of things Britain was in the midst and aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars – Britain was at war with France on and off from 1793 – 1815 – which meant artists couldn’t travel to the continent on the one hand; this emphasised the landscape of the home country: Britain was under threat and so artists reflected this new interest in the homeland that might be soon-over-run by Napoleon in making drawings, paintings and etchings of scenes up and down the country. On the national side of things, the Napoleonic Wars and in particular the end of them, caused crisis in the countryside. As the markets collapsed because imports were cheaper, so farmers increased their claims on the land: the enclosure acts, which had already been increasing since the 1750s, meant that common land and village fields were being privatised and that 500 years of traditional ways of rural life were being destroyed. Alongside all this, new mechanisation – from seed drills to threshing machines – was coming into play. It’s from the end of the Napoleonic wars all through to the 1830s that workers were burning hayricks, destroying machinery and threatening anarchy in the countryside.
Whilst this is never represented or confronted in Constable’s work, it must affect some of the ways we see his paintings.
Constable was born on 11th June 1776, probably in Flatford Mill, the fourth of six children, to Ann and Golding Constable – a prosperous family who owned mills, farmland and a large imposing three-storey house. If he had been a good student he would have trained for the Church, instead after leaving school he entered the family business and took over the mill on Bergholt Common; yet what he wanted to do was become a painter – taking he easel and oil paints out into the fields to paint alongside his friend, amateur artists John Dunthorne.
In 1799 he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools. However, he was not a fan: the Schools trained new artists to paint like the old artists before them; their paintings should look like what they were expected to look like; what Constable realised was that none of these artists had really looked at nature – they were painting nature at second hand – and had never looked at the individual character of a tree or the way the sunlight actually falls across the land. And what happens over the next few years becomes extremely important: he went out sketching – not with pencil – but in oil paints – around the Suffolk countryside. Whilst this was not revolutionary in itself, what we’ll see happening is that Constable’s “finished” works start taking on the lightness of colour and the spontaneity of the sketches; that freshness that captures the daylight.
Flatford Mill (1816) for example is truly extraordinary in terms of portraying the freshness of the day:
Constable would have worked from his summer sketches in Suffolk and then spent the autumn and spring in his London studio getting this ready for the RA exhibition. Look at how unique these trees are – they have their own character – even as they provide the Claudean framing device; the sky has a body of cloud and, throughout, there are little incidents: from the horse being uncoupled from the barge so that it can go under a footbridge, then along the path to the man and the dog. We have gorgeous sweeps of path and river running throughout the picture; these passages of light and shade and even just looking at the picture one seems to be able to feel the fresh air.
As a biographical note, we should say that this year, 1816, is when Constable married Maria Bicknell after a difficult five-year courtship – the marriage was opposed by her grandfather – but the marriage was a happy one (seven children!).
Returning to the landscapes, the same effect of brilliant shining fresh air comes from looking at The Haywain – Constable’s 1821 six-footer.
It’s a picture that we now know perhaps too well – it’s on everything – but this was a radical painting in its day – much misunderstood by the RA connoisseurs who preferred their paintings brown and old-looking. By contrast, when it was shown at the Salon exhibition in Paris there was huge enthusiasm and became the catalyst for a new realism in French art – from Delacroix through to the Barbizon School and Courbet.
And what’s particularly innovative here is the way Constable uses pure white paint – there’s a texture – to create the “freshness” and “dewiness” of the light on the water and leaves – what came to be critically described as ‘Constable Snow’.
If the outdoor sketching is one intrinsic element to Constable’s art in order to get this bright fresh effect, then his fascination with clouds is the next strongest development: already we can see they have appeared in Flatford Mill and here in the Haywain, and it’s about now, 1821 that he begins painting cloudy skies on a daily basis – mostly up on Hampstead Hill – making notes as to the time, place, direction of the wind even on the back of the sketches.
Many of the scholars suggest The Haywain is the absolute pinnacle of Constable’s art – but I think it might be The Cornfield:
Here everything comes together: we have the Claudian framing and depth; we have the autobiographical associations as Constable remembers his boyhood in Suffolk – this is the path along which he went to school (is this a self-portrait, drinking from the river?); we have the working landscape with the sheep and the farmers; the passages of light and shade and this glorious bright but cloudy sky.
We might even suggest there is more to it: the boy in the foreground is childhood, the men at the edge of the field are adults and, right in the centre is a church – we are led, along this pathway, from birth to death (perhaps).
How then do we get from bright Suffolk pastures to stormy Hadleigh Castle?
It’s so interesting to see these two sketches in comparison with the final painting – dramatic enough in itself. The sketches though are a flurry, a fury of paint, almost apocalyptic. And this might the result of what was for Constable a stormy, conflicted year: his wife Maria died and he was – at last – made a Royal Academician.
In comparisons with the other work we have looked at even the exhibition painting seems ‘rough’ and ‘unfinished’, it remains much closer to the sketches rather than having been ‘worked up’ and it is because of this that it seems to contain the emotional act of “seeing” – the thoughts, memories and personal experiences that are stirred by the sight of a ruined castle on the very edge of the land. But note that the tide is incoming, that there are bright rays of sunlight on the horizon; there is hope in the turmoil of life and death.
Let’s end though with a much brighter painting, a sketch from 1821 that wouldn’t be out of place at an Impressionist exhibition sixty years later:
John Constable and Hadleigh Castle
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There will be a little break next week and then September will see the start a new research project: British Art Groups (1830s-1930s).