William Cook takes refuge from the modern world at an exhibition of the artist’s paintings of his beloved Salisbury
I’d always thought of Constable’s paintings of Salisbury Cathedral as grand, majestic things — but seeing them again in Salisbury, with Richard Constable, the artist’s great-great grandson, you begin to look at these splendid pictures in an entirely different light. Richard has come here, to the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, to attend the opening of an exhibition that celebrates his ancestor’s close relationship with this city, and standing alongside him, in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral, you realise John Constable wasn’t painting architecture, but the landscape of his private life. The cathedral may be the focal point, but these are pastoral pictures, and the leafy panorama that he painted remains miraculously intact. Step outside this gallery and Constable’s Salisbury stands before you, mercifully unaltered by the last two centuries. If Richard’s great-great grandfather were here today, I reckon he’d feel quite at home.
Constable & Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape marks the bicentenary of the artist’s first visit to the place he painted more than any other, apart from his native Suffolk. From that first visit, Salisbury became his touchstone — a source of happiness and inspiration, almost a home from home. This compact show traces Constable’s evolving style through his seven visits to Salisbury, from his first shy sketch in 1811 to dramatic watercolours of local landmarks such as Stonehenge, painted more than 20 years later, only a few years before his death.
Constable first came to Salisbury at the invitation of its bishop, John Fisher, an early advocate of his work. Here he met the bishop’s nephew, another cleric, also called John Fisher, who soon became his closest friend. Fisher married Constable to his one true love, Maria Bicknell; the happy couple came here on honeymoon. After Maria died, in her early forties, breaking Constable’s heart, he returned here and painted his first pictures since her death. These personal landmarks are charted in this pocket retrospective, which doubles as a concise but intimate biography.
There are only 43 works, squeezed into two small rooms, but the overall effect is remarkably comprehensive. Focusing on Salisbury draws out the variations in Constable’s treatment of light and colour, from his precise early studies to his almost impressionistic later work. The bulk of this selection is from the major London museums (particularly the V&A) but there are numerous surprises: a delightful little landscape from the National Gallery of Ireland, and two powerful chalk sketches from Oldham, of all places. Sadly, Constable’s penetrating portrait of his dear friend Fisher is conspicuous by its absence, and landscapes from the Louvre and Washington couldn’t travel, owing to security concerns. Yet it’s still a rare old treat to see so much of Constable’s Salisbury in one gallery. And, best of all, the scenes he painted are only a short walk away.
The Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, which devised this exhibition, is right beside the cathedral, and the sites of half a dozen paintings are here on the doorstep, all within the Cathedral Close. You can walk around them in half an hour. There’s scarcely a single blemish to spoil the view. The most intriguing location is the Leadenhall, Fisher’s handsome historic home, where he entertained Constable, promising him ‘brushes, paints and canvas in abundance’. Today it’s a boarding school, but the building is much the same.
From the Leadenhall, you can wander out into open countryside, where Constable painted many more pictures, including ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ (aka ‘The Rainbow’), one of his most famous paintings and the centrepiece of this show. Sheep still graze in these marshy fields, just as they did in Constable’s day, and today the dark forbidding sky is exactly as he saw it. There’s no rainbow, but otherwise it’s just the same. The only difference is the cathedral spire, which actually seems bigger than it does in ‘The Rainbow’.
‘Usually, artists bring buildings nearer to the viewer,’ says Timothy Wilcox, the show’s curator, ‘but Constable puts the cathedral further away.’ He’s absolutely right, of course. Standing here in the Water Meadows, the cathedral looks colossal. In Constable’s painting it seems small and fragile. For Constable, power isn’t down here on earth, but in the heavens above. It was here in Salisbury that he really began to paint the sky — not as an adjunct to his landscapes, but as their driving force. ‘The sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything,’ he told Fisher. As I strolled back into town, over Harnham Bridge — the site of several Constables — I marvelled at how little his world has changed.
That evening I went to a talk by Timothy Wilcox, tied to the opening of this show, in a draughty old hall; the place was packed. Clearly, Constable still occupies a special place in Salisbury’s collective psyche. For most of us, he represents a lost idyll, but for the citizens of Salisbury his paintings are still current.
On my way back to the station, I dropped into the cathedral to admire the gothic masterpiece that Constable painted — built in fewer than 40 years, one of the wonders of the medieval world. Salisbury Cathedral was a greenfield site, built to replace the old cathedral at Old Sarum. The town grew up around it — hence the open spaces all around. It’s full of wonderful works of art. Sculptures by Elisabeth Frink and Antony Gormley are among the more recent additions, but I doubt these artists will be cherished as Constable is in 200 years.
The sky was even darker now. A storm was on its way. Still, one of the consolations of Constable is the beauty he finds in clouds of grey. As my train slid out of Salisbury, the last thing I saw was the cathedral spire, ‘darting up into the sky like a needle’, as Constable told his beloved wife, Maria. As we turned towards London, and the modern world, it began to rain.
Constable & Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape is at Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum until 25 September; www.salisburymuseum.org.uk
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 28, 2011