Just saying the name, John Constable, evokes such powerful boyhood memories and nostalgic feelings for the countryside in me.
When I was young we had one of those faded prints of ‘The Haywain’ in our living room. Dad always loved Constables skies. And so I grew up with this old print.
When I visited the National Gallery to see ‘The Haywain‘ or ‘Landscape noon’, as Constable called it, I was blown away! Its virtuosity, its rich colour, its varied textures and fresh rendering of the sky was for me “the beauty of all”. Little wonder the French impressionists were so in awe of it. That faded print at home, seeming now, like a faded memory, had planted the seed for my growing love of Constable.
In Art College, I became apologetic in my appreciation of his paintings, he wasn’t exactly cool, conceptually abstract, progressively postmodern, art school material. He was considered ‘chocolate box kitsch’ like those crying boy prints (mum had one of those in the dining room) or those Spanish flamenco dancers, (top of the stairs) or porcelain dray horse and carts (mantelpiece)!!
However, when I discovered his ‘oil sketches’ at the V&A, together with the full size sketches for the ‘Haywain’ and ‘A Leaping horse’, I stopped apologising. Here was to my mind, the most progressive paintings I had ever seen. With their great splashes of paint, their effervescent and spontaneous slashes of chiaroscuro colour, theses giant sketches were a fore taste of modern ‘abstract expressionism’. They demand our emotional responses. You can hear the rushing wind through his trees, you can sense those brooding Suffolk skies, smell the damp moss and taste those summer rains. He famously said, “Painting is but another word for feeling.” How right he was.
I began looking closer at his paintings and found not only Constable’s deeply profound love of nature, but Constable himself, amid an England that was rapidly changing, yearning for a countryside that no longer existed and maybe never did. There’s a nostalgia for his ‘Careless boyhood’, in paintings like ‘The cornfield’ and ‘Stratford mill’, showing boys fishing and drinking from streams, on idyllic summer afternoons. There is a longing for his parents, for his home in East Bergholt, for recognition from the Royal Academy, without whose validation he felt he could not make a living as an Artist. There’s hope amongst political ‘tempest’ in Paintings like, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the meadows’. There’s also grief in the loss of his good friend Rev John Fisher.
But, the devastating sorrow for the death of his beloved wife, Maria, is palpable in his full size sketch of ‘Hadliegh Castle‘. This painting, for me, carries a particular poignancy. Having made a drawing in his sketchbook, while on holiday with Maria, he painted it years later, not long after her death. The ruin of Hadliegh castle surrounded by an empty landscape, to me is a heart breaking lament and with its vast expressive sky, clearly shows Contstable utterly bereft without her.
I am still discovering Constable, uncovering his philosophical side. Through his lectures at the R.A. He said that, “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments.” He felt that painters should be thought of in the same way as the greatest thinkers and scientists of the day. And why not, nobody understood cloud formations, for example, with their inherent weather patterns, more than Constable. Incidentally, being the son of a miller, he would have been all too aware of the dangers of extreme weather. Friction from the violently spinning sails of a windmill in high winds, could be catastrophic. At worst burning it down, at least, destroying its driveshafts that turn the mill stones. Similar dangers could be said of watermills with rivers bursting their banks in bouts of heavy rain. Millers were as serious as fisherman when it came to the weather.
I will never get bored of looking at his paintings and I won’t apologise for their nostalgia or sentiment. I’ll keep discovering something new within them, and visiting them like old friends, whenever I can.
He said, “I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the river Stour. Those scenes made me a painter and I am grateful – that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil.”
Equally, I am grateful to him, for I associate my ‘carless boyhood’ with his paintings – that is, I had often thought of them before I ever touched a pencil.