Constable on sea

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

John Constable was, as we say these days, conflicted about Brighton. On the one hand, as he wrote in a letter, he was revolted by this marine Piccadilly, populated with: ‘ladies dressed & undressed — gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers — footmen — children — nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen’, all mixed together ‘in endless and indecent confusion’.

On the other, as a brilliantly conceived little exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery makes clear, the town was one of a small number of locations that were crucial to his art. He went there, however, not because of the warm friendships that took him to Salisbury or the childhood memories and associations that made the landscape around East Bergholt — for him — charged with emotion, but because of his wife Maria’s weak chest.

The sea air of Brighton was considered better for invalids than smoggy Regency London, choked with coal smoke. So Constable — who hated to be separated from Maria and their children — was obliged to leave his studio on Charlotte Street for extended periods in 1824–25 and 1827, and carry on working by the seaside as best he could.

Storm clouds often mass in the skies of the pictures he did there. Doubtless, this being the English coast, the weather really was often wet. But those seaside stays must also have been overshadowed by Maria’s tuberculosis, from which she died in 1828.

The Brighton pictures have not been much considered as a group. Until, that is, 2010 when Peter Harrap, a painter and curator of the exhibition, found himself living in the very house which the Constables rented in the summer of 1824, and working — very probably — in the attic room that Constable used as a temporary studio. Fired by this discovery, he set about discovering more about his predecessor’s sojourns on the South Coast.

Constable and Brighton is the result. Some of its conclusions are surprising. It seems likely for instance that ‘Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree’ (c. 1824) was not painted in Hampstead, as previously thought, but based on a sturdy bole seen in a Sussex park. It is wonderfully specific — a botanical portrait — by a man who loved trees deeply. But vegetation was scarcely a novel subject for Constable.

The new element he tackled in Brighton was obvious but profound: the sea. As the art historian Ian Warrell points out in the excellent accompanying book, this was a foray onto the artistic territory of his great contemporary, Turner. And as it happened, JMWT was also in Brighton in 1824.

The two men were acutely aware of each other’s specialities. ‘What does he know of boats?’ Turner once cattily inquired. But actually, Constable’s fishing boats drawn up on the shore are superbly solid, woody and brine-soaked. Even better, though, are his sparkling white spray, churning breakers, dry, granular beaches and alternately lowering and sunny skies.

In these pictures Constable frequently performs a conjuring trick that many painters have sought to bring off. Howard Hodgkin described it as what happens when ‘a brush full of pigment is put down and turns into something’. For example, the oil sketch ‘Rainstorm over the sea’ (c. 1824–28) contains in the sky half a dozen vertical strokes — blatantly just paint, the marks of individual bristles easily visible — which somehow manage simultaneously to be dark rainspouts over the water.

In the same way, the creamy foam on the waves in the large ‘Chain Pier, Brighton’ (1826–27), a subject Turner also depicted, is at once a scatter of paint flecks you might find in a Jackson Pollock and — just as much — brilliant light on tumbling water. Perhaps that kind of metamorphosis was why the young Delacroix, on seeing a small Constable, described it as ‘incroyable’.

Such alchemy was the goal of many later painters . It’s why Constable still looks modern — and one reason why he was, as the scholar Anne Lyles explains in a catalogue essay, an influence on later 19th-century French art, though sadly less so in England where he still tends to be misunderstood as a master of cosy southern British topography (summed up by ‘The Hay Wain’ as a motif on beer mats).

That wasn’t what Constable was up to at all. ‘The business of a painter,’ he wrote on 24 August 1824, was ‘to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.’ He did that again and again: transforming a cloud, a leaf, a stretch of shingle or gurgling surf into visual poetry. That’s why I don’t entirely agree with Warrell that at Brighton Turner had to concede Constable ‘a draw, if not quite a win’. Personally, I think Constable scored an out and out win.

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