John Constable -A Suffolk Artist

Last month I went to see the ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.

Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, John Constable (1776-1837) is known as one of the most important of all British artists with many of his famous works featuring the gentle countryside of his bucolic home county, Suffolk. Constable’s landscape paintings not only showed a new way to paint, but through sharing his visual interpretation he also encouraged his audiences to view the landscape in a different way.

I think this idea of a historical and different way of perceiving reality, as well as a historical way of viewing any re-presentation of that reality by an artist of the corresponding period, is more difficult for us to imagine than we realise. We are, after all, living in a time after the Impressionists, after the Post-Impressionists and after the Modernists, indeed, we now appear to exist in a time considered so postmodern much of our realities are viewed with deep skepticism. Please just hold this in mind as you look at the next two paintings and as you read the context for their creation.

‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’. July 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33 x W 50.8 cm

On show in this exhibition is a very special pair of paintings. In the summer of 1815 with the health of Constables’ elderly father, Golding, failing and his wife, Ann, John’s mother, having died earlier that spring, John came to visit with his father in East Bergholt. During the course of his stay he spent many hours in the fields sketching and painting. Two paintings produced at this time were ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ (above) and ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ (below).

Constable never exhibited or attempted to sell these two paintings during his lifetime. Although highly finished, these were private works, records of the landscape that was precious to him at a difficult time. I think this is a fine example of the difference between the sensibilities of the early 19th century and our ‘show all, tell all’, skeptical 21st-century existence.

‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’. August 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33.1 x W 50.7 cm

Returning now to the exhibition more generally it is possible to detect that Constable believed in the necessity of being skilful at drawing. A capability in the world of art that has not always been fashionable. At the beginning of his career Constable often copied from Old master prints, to develop his technique. He continued this practice into later life, collecting prints by Dutch and Flemish artists such as this copy of Jacob Ruysdael’s ‘The Wheatfield’ (below).

‘The Wheatfield’ by Constable (top) after Jacob Ruysdael. 1818. Pen and sepia ink on paper.

Of course, the exhibition also displays some of Constable’s original drawn creations such as this pen, ink and watercolour study of East Bergholt church.

‘St Mary’s, East Bergholt Church: the exterior from the South West’. c. 1796. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. H 25.8 cm x W 39.7 cm

On the picture it is just possible to make out a faint set of pencil grid lines drawn in preparation for the transfer and enlarging of the church into the finished oil painting.

‘East Bergholt Church’. c. 1796-97. Oil on board.

Naturally, there can’t be a Constable exhibition without at least one painting that includes some aspect of Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I had just taken the above photo and was about to leave the gallery when the Gallery Steward approached me and asked if I’d spotted the kingfisher flying over the water in the Mill Stream painting. I hadn’t.

‘The Mill Stream’. c. 1814. Oil on canvas. H 71.1 x W 91.5 cm. The building we see is Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I paused and looked. And looked closer, and closer and squinted and eventually he pointed it out to me. There it was a brush stroke of red and two of blue, the kingfisher.

A sequence ending in a spot magnification (thanks to computer wizardry) to capture Constable’s kingfisher flying across the Mill Stream.