Carry on Constable

Constable and Brighton: Something Out of Nothing (Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 8 April-8 October 2017)

Two artists muscle to the front of early nineteenth century British art: Turner and Constable. Turner, because of Summer exhibition, yadda yadda, varnishing day, yadda yadda, red paint, yadda yadda, it’s a boat and Constable, because between some prints in the living room and six table mats, he was probably the only artist to make it into my childhood home. I can’t help but feel that William Blake and John Martin are better and more interesting than both, but I suspect time has made them more seem conservative than they deserve. There was a huge retrospective of Constable’s big paintings at the V&A a couple of years ago (I suspect I have notes somewhere), but he doesn’t get me excited.

The premise of this exhibition is the move that John Constable made in 1824 — on the verge of success, living in Hampstead, he moved for the summer to Brighton for the sake of his wife’s health. The marriage had not been easy — he had known Maria Bicknell since childhood, and they had fallen in love around 1809, but he was 40 before objections were dropped to their marriage by her family, in 1816. She bore seven children in a dozen years — John Charles, Maria Louisa, Charles Golding, Isobel, Emma, Alfred and Lionel — and her health was not great. They moved, I assume for the season, to Brighton in 1824.

IMG_1562There they rented a house, 9 Sober’s Gardens, just up from Regency Square, and were to return there several times until 1828, when Maria died of tuberculosis. The terrace house was built by Mrs Sober, who was taking advantage of Brighton’s hip status as Regency on Sea — John Nash, best known for the Royal Pavilion lived for a period nearby. Constable apparently saw Brighton as “Hampstead with the addition of the sea”, although it is tempting to think of it as “the sea without the addition of Hampstead.” At first, to judge by his letter to his friend John Fisher, bishop of Salisbury, he didn’t make much of it and was determined to be unimpressed.

But Constable found and was inspired by three walks — along the coast east towards Kemptown and the Chain Pier, along the coast west to Shoreham on Sea and inland up to Devil’s Dyke. Trudging along the shore line gave him the chance to do something that he had been doing in Hampstead: paint the sky. This often seemed to be done en pleine air, using the lid of his paint box as an easel. These skies could then be used in bigger paintings, such as the six footers.

Hence we have a range of paintings all more or less the same: a curve of beach to the right, often with a spectator, a boat to the left with sail, a horizon line a third of the way up the paper and then varying kinds of sky. He experimented with blue and pink paper, we’re told, to varying effects, but this wasn’t always clear. I suspect he is experimenting with the boat balancing the beach spectator and vice versa, as the sail leans in different ways. I like them well enough, but I’m not enough of a connoisseur to appreciate twenty of them. Nor do I know Brighton well enough to recognise which bit of Hove it is. I suspect that the Norwegian painter Peder Balke was to come across these sort of paintings and inspired his skies — but he had a rather more tumultuous landscape than a shingle beach.

Sometimes, in a painting like Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening (Shoreham Bay) (1828) we get a vision of paradise or Arcadia in the sunset, the sun central to the composition, a genial eye over figures sketched like Lowry’s.

Inland, we get to Blatchington Mill or the Old Parish Church, Hove, and fields of corn in The Gleaners, Brighton (1924), with two windmills as a bonus (he likes windmills — I wish I knew if they were actually there). Two women are finding the corn that remains after the more methodical harvest has finished. And look at that cloudy sky, responding to the curves of the downs. To my mind, he is painting the direction of the wind. His style is moving from a topographic to something more scratched.

And then there is the tourist attraction: the chain pier. Designed by Captain Samuel Brown, it was intended as a place for boats from Dieppe to dock, but became an attraction in its own right in 1823 onwards. Turner showed up in 1824 to paint it — supposedly a short and squat chap in contrast with Constable’s taller figure (I always imagine the former as looking like Timothy Soall, for some reason). Constable’s main 1826-27 painting of it comes in thirds, the lower third marking the line of the pier, in the mid distance. There are boats and dogs on the beach, along with workers and tourists. It is a rye of society. In the background, various sailboats and ships and the channel. He showed it at the RAA Summer Exhibition in 1827, but it never sold in his lifetime.

Turner’s 1828 version seems more utopian — a commission for Petchworth House, designed to hang under portraits — but he paints stormier ones too and, ever the show off, the view from the sea, too. It’s another Margate.

The exhibition claims that Constable shifted style through his time at Brighton, continuing to paint Hampstead pictures away from London. I’m not sure the case is quite made clear here. It also marked a turning point in reputation he sold many paintings in France and had an exhibition of The Hay Wain at the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a gold medal, alongside View on the Stour near Dedham. He was also introduced to French dealer, Claude Schroth, by dealer John Arrowsmith, who was happy to sell more paintings as the French art collectors embraced maritime scenes. Constable refused to go to France to be fêted and he and Arrowsmith fell out.

Constable inspired the the Barbizon School, who in turn influenced the French impressionists; Constable in turn had been influenced by Claude Lorraine. It’s a mutual back scratch.

And of course, the voice we don’t get here is that of Maria, stuck indoors with up to seven children, whilst hubby went off on a walk (admittedly to get inspiration for paintings that would pay the bills — perhaps the failing to go to Dieppe and France was not wanting to leave his family behind). I don’t know what she felt about Brighton — but it was sadly not enough to save her.

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