Constable’s Weather

David Sylvester

Perhaps our weather is the main ingredient in our education as well as in our conversation. Could it not be that the origin of the Englishman’s phlegm is a childhood of last-minute cancellations through rain of long-awaited treats, inuring him for ever to disappointment? In any event the great English painters of weather did not have to submit to the weather’s domination. They recorded it with closer fidelity than any painters before or since, but they were free to put it where they wanted it.

Consider the genesis of Constable’s full-size sketch of Hadleigh Castle, the work described by the selector-cataloguers of his panoramic exhibition at the Tate, Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, as ‘for later generations the very epitome of Romantic landscape painting’.

It was the most derelict, most desolate scene Constable ever pictured, with its ruined pair of towers set beside an endless flat expanse of land and sea and land, and, with its ferociously tempestuous sky, the most violent, strident painting he ever did. It was realised in the wake of the death in November 1828 of his wife, Maria, a death that devastated him: ‘I shall never feel again as I have felt – the face of the World is totally changed to me.’ He had seen Hadleigh Castle and made a tiny pencil drawing of it in a sketchbook while on a tour of south Essex in the company of a friend in June 1814, two years before his marriage. ‘At Hadleigh,’ he told Maria, ‘there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is really a fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland and looking many miles to sea.’ There is no reason to believe that he ever saw the place again, and for nearly fifteen years there was no further sign in his work of his ever having seen it.

When he came back to the subject, he began with a small oil sketch based on the sketchbook drawing but adding a shepherd and his flock. The next development was a pen-and-ink drawing in which he articulated the shape of the definitive image: he brought the two towers closer to each other and put a small tree between them, and, with the help of another of the memoranda in the sketchbook of the 1814 tour, tripled what he made visible of the width of the shores and sea, so balancing the presence of the ruined towers with that of a long stretch of poisonously dank, god-forsaken flatness.

In these two versions of the image and in the full-size oil sketch and again in the finished exhibition painting, he repeated the precise positions of the birds flying around the foreground tower in the 1814 memorandum: whatever changes he made, those birds, which in reality were of all the incidents on the scene the most ephemeral in their placing, remained immovable. Only in the two final oils did he introduce the gulls driven inshore which underline the turbulence of the sky common to all the versions done after his wife’s death. The drawing which had been made on the spot suggests cloudy, blowy conditions (the only time I visited the site was also in midsummer, and it was fairly wet and windy and overcast). Whatever weather happened to have been found there was irrelevant when it came to composing a picture. Feeling was what determined that weather. In 1834 he told a friend: ‘Every gleam of sunshine is blighted to me in the art at least. Can it therefore be wondered at that I paint continual storms? Tempest on tempest rolls – still the “darkness” is majestic.’

Constable sometimes associated his most menacing imagery with that of Wordsworth. For instance, he sent a friend a proof of his mezzotint of Weymouth Bay and (mis)quoted ‘This sea in anger, and that dismal shore’. And certainly he could have said of himself, as Wordsworth did, that he had ‘sought that beauty which, as Milton sings, / Hath terror in it’. Drawing links and parallels between Constable and Wordsworth has become one of the easy options of art scholarship. But of course there is no similarity between the experience of looking at a picture by the one and reading a poem by the other, as there is, perhaps, between looking at a picture by Turner and reading a poem by Shelley. Wordsworth is limpid, reflective, precisely evocative of the joy or panic the poet has experienced in the face of given phenomena and of the mark this has left upon him; he essentially talks about the phenomena, does not re-create their substance, does not make them immediate. Constable’s paintings are congested, packed with sensation, are among the most physically immediate pictures ever painted: they take us there.

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