Constable’s Plenty

John Barrell

  • Constable by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams
    Tate Gallery, 544 pp, £45.00, June 1991, ISBN 1 85437 071 5
  • Romatic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition by Jonathan Bate
    Routledge, 131 pp, £8.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 415 06116 4

The catalogue of the Constable exhibition which opened at the Tate in June is probably the glossiest, the heaviest, the most unwieldy volume ever to accompany an exhibition of the work of a British artist. It is also one of the dullest. Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams have resisted the tendency of the last fifteen years or so by which the catalogues of major exhibitions have often been presented as major interpretative studies of the artist and his times. Constable is a catalogue, nothing more. It maximises our knowledge of the facts of Constable’s work and minimises their significance. The matter of interpretation – the attempt to understand the works in the context of the world in which they were produced – is briefly addressed in the introduction, which represents all ‘readings’ of Constable’s work as either ‘literary’ or ‘sociological’ and as incapable (therefore) of being incorporated into ‘the main body of Constable scholarship’. The proper concerns of that scholarship are displayed in the catalogue entries themselves: admirably careful to identify the places represented, the date of each work, its relation with other works in Constable’s oeuvre, and no less careful to repel and refuse – though not to argue against – interpretations advanced by other scholars and critics.

But however unusual this volume may look in comparison with the kind of ambitiously interpretative catalogue we have become used to, it is entirely characteristic of the series of catalogues of major exhibitions of 18th and early 19th-century British artists held at the Tate in the last seven or eight years – George Stubbs in 1984; Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting in 1987; Wright of Derby last year. None of these was quite as blandly factual as Constable, nor so studiously innocent of the desire to situate the objects on display within a context wider than the work of the artist himself. But together they produce the sense that a Tate house-style has emerged, the main feature of which is a tenacious refusal of curiosity about how paintings might embody and communicate meaning.

The style needs to be understood in a number of different time-frames. At one level, it is simply the latest manifestation of a long tradition in the study of British art of the period from Gainsborough to Constable. Since the late 19th century, this has largely been the province of scholars who were not in any sense intellectuals, though there have been exceptions. What they valued in English Art – and that is the appropriate term here – was its Englishness, a quality they recognised mainly in their own bluff unconcern with ideas. At another level, however, it may well be the result of a consciously chosen policy. The key event here is the Richard Wilson exhibition of 1982-3, organised by David Solkin, whose thoughtful and carefully researched catalogue attempted to situate Wilson’s landscapes in a range of historical contexts including the moral and political ideas and ideals attached to the ownership of land in the 18th century.

Editorials in the Daily Telegraph and in Apollo denounced Solkin’s work, and appeared to think it grossly inappropriate that ‘tendentious views’ should find expression in the official catalogue of an exhibition sponsored by Britoil. Apollo went further, informing the Trustees of the Tate that their curatorial staff, faced with the emergence of ‘the Marxist interpretation of British Art’, had been revealed as lacking ‘the objectivity usually expected of the public servant’. It went on to warn that ‘if some measure of self-policing (or self-discipline) is not instituted’, the Trustees might find themselves obliged ‘to take a more active part in the management’ of the institution. Since then, there has been no more speculation about the politics of culture in the catalogues that emanate from the Tate, and no embarrassment therefore has been offered to the United Technologies Corporation (Stubbs), Pearson PLC (Hogarth), the British Land Company (Wright of Derby) of Barclays (Constable), without whose generosity these major exhibitions of British Art could not have been afforded. It goes without saying that if the Tate has responded to this outcry, it has been only by a more careful choice of exhibition organisers, which did away with the need for any active ‘policing’ of what the catalogues were allowed to say.

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