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.

In the finished painting, the painting prepared for exhibition as Hadleigh Castle, The mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (one of the few major works missing from the Tate show), the weather was moderated, neutered. Here it was no longer determined by a purely personal need, but, to an extent, by an economic need. The finished pictures could fetch high prices, the full-size sketches had no commercial value, and some at least of the clientele insisted that it was not enough for him to clarify the detail: he also had to clarify the weather. As his uncle told him, in 1811, ‘cheerfulness is wanted in your landscapes. They are tinctured with a sombre darkness.’

From the time around 1820 when Constable started making full-size or near-full-size sketches for his set-pieces, the weather was almost invariably improved in the course of translation from sketch to finished picture. This seems rather immoral from our puritanical point of view: we have been brought up to prefer the sketches and have not yet reacted against that preference, which is rooted in a belief in self-expression, a love of the ambiguities that arise from an unfinished surface, a taste for spontaneity and a prejudice that cheerfulness is less interesting than a sombre darkness. But even as we go on judging the full-size sketch of Hadleigh Castle to be a distinctly greater work of art than the exhibition version, we still have to ask whether it was entirely because of external pressures that Constable improved the weather. Could it not be that he was trying to reassure himself that painting the sketch in all its terribilita had had a cathartic effect upon him? Or could it not be that there had indeed been a cathartic effect? What is certain is that he accepted with all his heart the idea that the greatest landscape paintings he knew presented a form of earthly paradise.

Claude, he said, in one of his lectures, given in the 1830s, ‘has been deemed the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw, and he fully merits the distinction. The characteristics of his pictures are always those of serene beauty. Sweetness and amenity reign through every creation of his pencil, but his chief power consisted in uniting splendour with repose, warmth with freshness, and dark with light ... In Claude’s landscape all is lovely – all amiable – all is amenity and repose; the calm sunshine of the heart.’

While Claude was as surely the ideal and model for the great English landscapists as Classical sculpture for the Italian Renaissance, there was an unruliness in Turner and Constable, as against Wilson, say, which made them radically transform rather than imitate their model. They took Claude’s compositions as theatres within which to work out their personal obsessions. Turner bombarded scenes out of Claude with brilliant light, at once decomposing and transfiguring them. Turner made Claude’s scenes more ethereal, Constable made them more factual. He did this in three very different ways, two of them for the land, another for the sky.

On the land he insisted that between the eye of the beholder and the serene prospect of the distances there be a close-up view, warts and all, of a messy tangle of vegetation, nettles and spikes and thorns and rotted wood, with slime and mud and murky water. Only after the eye has traversed this organic equivalent of a ditchful of barbed wire may it enter the paradise beyond.

The other way in which Constable’s land is more factual than Claude’s is that the human action which goes on there in the open has to do with horny-handed toil rather than the pursuit of love or war. So the reigning calm and order has manifestly been achieved through ages of human and equine labour that has kept rampageous nature – whose untidy invasiveness has been put on display in the foreground – under control. That the figures are shown performing routine daily tasks – driving wagons, fishing, opening lock gates – enhances the sense of order and well-being, the intimation that things have long been going on like this and it would be as well that they continue to do so. It is the Suffolk in which Constable grew up as the son of a miller who prospered enough to live, it was said, ‘in the style of a country squire’; nor was he unaware that his pictures were testaments to his ‘careless boyhood’. And he could hope that the system would go on working in his favour. ‘The husbandman, after his useful labours,’ said an article in The East Anglian Magazine in 1814, ‘rejoices to see his house adorned with the work of the fine arts’ (the article, admittedly, was written by a friend). At that blessed time the everyday World was itself an ideal world; by the time in the mid-1820s when Constable achieved his finest depictions of it, that harmonious world had become harshly discordant. ‘From 1821,’ writes Michael Rosenthal in one of his invaluable accounts of Constable’s social and ideological context, ‘the East Anglian proletariat expressed its dissatisfactions by assembling riotously, breaking the threshing machines it blamed for its lack of winter employment, and firing stacks and property.’ And nobody was more angry than Constable that the lower orders didn’t welcome hardship.

But, then, Constable was no realist. The proof of this is that in his big pictures of home it’s eternally summer, and around mid-day. It seems quite probable that the remark in a current publisher’s blurb that Constable is ‘best known for his sun-dappled landscapes of the English countryside’ is not a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of Renoir but a slip which occurred because the writer had noticed that the landscapes were summery but not that this didn’t mean they were sunny. The way in which Constable made his skies factual was, first, to make them as temperamental as skies are in England, and second, to make them as dominant as they are in Suffolk through consuming so much of the field of vision. His art is a celebration of the experience that, standing on the bank of the Stour by Flatford Mill, you can see sky everywhere around you, and the sky you see is a number of different skies, many of them threatening, and ten minutes later those skies have changed position and several new ones have appeared, and ten minutes after that they have all changed. (And there are skies to be seen there which are never seen in his pictures – for instance, a silver-gilded sky that Tiepolo might have painted.)

Constable’s landscapes, then, often present a contrast between a terrestrial nature that is benign and ordered and on a human scale and a celestial nature that is ungovernable and hostile as well as vast. In speaking of Claude he said that the master’s ‘chief power consisted in uniting splendour with repose, warmth with freshness, and dark with light’; he gave himself the task in most of his major paintings of uniting antitheses which were far more emphatic in their opposition.

I think it was through this epic duality between land and sky that he achieved his avowed aim of endowing landscape painting with the moral significance and weight which were traditionally the prerogative of history painting. Through that duality the paintings become sermons about the antithesis between the earth, where man has some say at least in ordaining its destiny, and the skies, where man has no control at all; they remind us that the god of the sky and of atmospheric phenomena was Zeus himself and that the skies are the playgrounds of the gods, to be used in killing us for their sport (or they remind us of the Christian equivalent, in which Constable believed, of all that bullying). Furthermore, the skies have the power to rule our feelings, in life (leaving us to turn the tables in art).

Out of doors in Suffolk or in Wiltshire menacing summer skies are a commonplace. On the small flat surface that is a picture the contrast risks producing the effect of playing the Apassionata during a recitation of Grey’s ‘Elegy’. Claude resolves his oppositions by endowing everything in the painting with the same marvellous radiance; in the sketches Constable resolves his, more testing, oppositions by endowing everything with the same mysterious opaqueness, the opaqueness of a wall of oil paint. The contradictions are dissolved because the painting is so insistent that images are not made of fields or trees or clouds, but of paint on canvas, a vibrant massing of paint with a life of its own: for instance, where there are trees, a complex of surging upward movement in the paint becomes an equivalent for the process of growth. The sketch for The Leaping Horse is the most marvellous of them, as everybody knows. Another which has the same miraculous combination of flickering aliveness and brooding gravity – so that at one moment it can call to mind the density of Courbet, at another the dark energy of Goya – is the sketch for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, a work of chequered reputation often said to be badly drawn in places (which it probably is, if one is looking at pictures as if they were dogs at Cruft’s).

The magnificent finished version of the same motif was the work which Constable felt was going to be considered his greatest. Here indeed is a piece that might be rated higher than its sketch – as one longs for all of them to be in refutation of a view which has been in vogue too long – what with the spectacular way in which Constable adds a rainbow and uses the geometry of its arc as a foil to that of the cathedral’s spire (their interplay, one suspects, could have given as much pleasure to Kandinsky as that of the index fingers of God and Adam). Nevertheless, by comparison with the sketch’s transformation of the life of nature into the life of paint, the exhibition picture is only wonderful theatre.

Like virtually all the other finished set-pieces, it doesn’t begin to have the utter togetherness, the organic quality, of the sketches. This seems the deepest of the reasons why it was generally necessary to temper the weather in the exhibition pieces: the characteristic duality in its extreme form could not be reconciled in pictures painted as these are; instead of the opposition’s being harmonised through the unifying power of paint, the scene itself had to be made more harmonious. So the opposition which could not be convincingly reconciled was the contradiction between the all too evidently laborious way with which the paint was applied in realising these pictures and Constable’s ambition that his landscapes should have the freshness and brightness of the outdoors.

Moreover, the loss incurred through finishing was not only one of painterly, colouristic qualities, but also a loss of architectural qualities. In the sketch for The Leaping Horse the series of figures across the middle distance seems to form a frieze which evokes antique reliefs as a Poussin does. The finished picture loses the breadth of handling which imbues the image with the monumentality that engenders those associations. It goes to show how trying to please the Royal Academy could make an artist lose contact with the grand tradition.

Perhaps there are a handful of great Constables among the finished set-pieces – and if there are, one of them is A Boat Passing a Dock, his Diploma work – but by and large this exhibition seems to me to be saying that we have been right about the superiority of the sketches and that when the finished versions are rehabilitated – as they are bound to be, since art historians are paid for being perverse – it will be for reasons not altogether remote from those for which Cabanel and Couture are nowadays considered presentable.

The exhibition is timely, given that fifteen years ago the Tate staged a Constable show which has been needing obliteration from the memory, a show which was a prime example of that contemporary phenomenon, the exhibition as life-size art book. The new exhibition is very intelligently and sensitively conceived and is well presented, though I find the background colour a bit tasteful, and, of course, the lighting in that suite of galleries is notoriously unfair to painterly pictures; its computerised machinery must have been invented in Laputa.

It is a large and demanding exhibition: one way of dealing with that is to begin every visit with Rooms Eight, Nine and Twelve, which cover the paintings from about 1823 onwards, and then look at some other things. There are about two hundred paintings and a hundred and fifty drawings and mezzotints. At least half the paintings are uninteresting other than historically, or for the way in which they are bad. The range of quality is very wide. It is scarcely believable as one stands in Room Four that works as nervously alive as the Weymouth Bay from the Louvre and the intense little related sketch, No 84, are by the same hand at about the same time as the nearby views of Dedham Lock and Mill, Nos 95 and 96, which are pictorial equivalents for waxworks: they look like colour reproductions. Again, in the circuit of Room Nine, the picture which follows the Hadleigh Castle sketch, the larger version of The Glebe Farm, looks like a framed tin tray, hand-painted by a local artist, from Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Yet again, the end wall of the final room is shared by The Valley Farm and the Stoke-by-Nayland from Chicago, and the juxtaposition demonstrates how a great artist nearing his end can produce, in the first case, something that looks utterly dead – because, as the cataloguers put it, ‘he is almost desperately adhering to earlier values, trying to preserve a basically naturalistic image in which he no longer has much faith, obsessively polishing the life out of it’– and, in the other case, a picture which, while clumsy and mucky and perhaps unresolved, movingly combines, as late works can do, evidence in its daring execution of sustained vitality with evidence in its feeling-tone of a sense of the nearness of death.

Measured, as artists should be, on the basis of his best, not his average performances, Constable got better and better, which is rare. The platitude that painting is an old man’s art is only valid, when you stop and think about it, for a small minority of painters: painters are more like writers than composers in that few of them do their greatest work in their last years. And the few who do so normally reach that state through ups and downs. Constable had ‘the slowest start,’ as Kenneth Clark put it, ‘of any painter before the time of Grandma Moses.’ He moved fairly steadily towards a peak reached around 1824 and then stayed at about that level until not long before he died, at 61, in 1837.

And he was pushing things further towards the end in manifestations of ‘late style’ as typical as Titian’s Marsyas. In the Stoke-by-Nayland and the altogether luminous and perfect Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge from the Phillips Collection, the freedom and autonomy and the wealth of metaphor in the spun and smudged and spattered paint is reaching in the directions of Soutine and Pollock and Leon Kossoff. Here is a fulfilment of the imperative which Constable had set down in 1824: ‘It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature ... but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.’ The cataloguers, in the role of fuddy-duddies, ask: ‘On the Phillips canvas did he, as it were, lose rather than find himself in paint?’ No, he bloody didn’t.