The V&A has an unparalleled collection of hundreds of works by John Constable (1776–1837), but hardly anyone seems to know about them. This is perhaps because they’re usually kept on an upper floor of the Henry Cole Wing, rather off the beaten track for most visitors.
This new exhibition gives us the chance to examine the V&A’s treasures, but because it has been installed in the extensive suite of galleries usually reserved for big survey shows, such as Art Deco or Modernism, a great deal of other material is also required to fill the space. So, instead of an exhibition devoted to the genius of Constable, we have an intensely art-historical display intended to demonstrate how much he owed to the masters of the past. This was an approach tried by the Tate in an ill-fated exhibition called Turner and the Masters in 2009. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t really work now.
The problem with exhibitions dealing with the various influences on an artist is that they fall between surveys of a period and monographic shows that concentrate on one subject. Falling between, they satisfy the requirements of neither, and are usually exercises driven by the academic ambitions of curators. They are often fascinating — as indeed is this one — but they tend not to be particularly viewer-friendly, juxtaposing the lead name and public attraction with other artists of a similar (and sometimes difficult to distinguish) type. Thus people come to see Constable, and find themselves also looking at Ruisdael, Turner, John Linnell, Thomas Jones, William Mulready, and so on. The effect can be confusing.
That said, this exhibition is in other ways a pleasure to walk through, not least because there is so much space around the pictures. Don’t overlook the painting of East Bergholt House, which Constable’s father built, and where the artist was born. The house was demolished in the early 1840s, though there is a plaque to mark its site in the village. The painting of it hangs at the exhibition entrance with a charmingly fresh self-portrait in pencil and chalk from c.1799–1804. Then there’s a five-minute film loop of Constable country before we go straight into the exhibition’s main theme: what Constable learnt from the Old Masters, and his copies after their works.
Gainsborough, Rubens, Girtin and Claude all feature here, some of them more welcome than others in the comparisons they instigate. Rubens’s ‘Landscape by Moonlight’ is a fine painting, but frankly I’d rather not see Constable’s rather melodramatic response to it. Once the point has been made that Constable copied Old Masters in order to learn (a time-honoured activity, after all), the repetition of it becomes the stuff of academic treatise, of footnote and appendix.
Luckily, this is not all the exhibition has to offer, and there are plenty of choice Constables to beguile the eye and lift the heart. There are various sub-themes (Constable as collector, Constable in the company of his contemporaries, Constable commissioning prints after his paintings; all subjects of considerable interest), but the chief value of the exhibition is the selection of mostly small works. Studies of foliage and poppies, ‘Dedham Vale from Flatford Lane’, a lovely liquid ‘Barges on the Stour’, the cool cloud studies, of course, and the hotter ‘Sketch at Hampstead: Evening’. Compare the gentle but exact notation, a kind of minimalism in ink, of the preparatory drawing with the finished oil of ‘Water-meadows near Salisbury’. Note the flicks of light, like mica dust, over ‘A View of Salisbury from Archdeacon Fisher’s House’. Other treats are the large bistre and sepia drawing after Titian, ‘Study for a Cornfield’, and the Stonehenge pictures. Glorious.
The hardback catalogue (£30), mostly written by the exhibition’s curator Mark Evans, is a densely researched and scholarly text, although for its focus on Constable’s own work I prefer the same author’s 2011 book John Constable: Oil Sketches from the V&A (£25). Both books deserve careful study.
My advice for anyone who wants simply to see some cracking paintings by Constable is to be selective in what you’re looking at, and seek out the plein-air sketches, the drawings and the full-scale sketches, and compare them to other Constables. The best things to pay attention to are Constable’s lively visual language and extraordinary formal invention, not to how he relates to Ruisdael or Claude. As the great art historian E.H. Gombrich wrote: ‘That the artist can learn from tradition …it never entered Constable’s mind to doubt…. He thought, and rightly, that only experimentation can show the artist a way out of the prison of style towards a greater truth…. Making still comes before matching.’
For contrast, let me recommend an excellent exhibition of the prints of C.R.W. Nevinson (1889–1946). Nevinson is much to the fore at the moment, as one of the greatest artists of the first world war, but this exhibition concentrates on his printmaking in peace as well as war, and launches the new catalogue raisonné of his prints by Jonathan Black (Lund Humphries, £150). It lists 148 items, and the show at Osborne Samuel brings together two thirds of that remarkable output. There are the famous images of war: columns on the march, shattered towns and shattered men, the war in the air — the mechanistic and the all-too-human. Then there are lonely landscapes, often with trees threshing in the wind, crashing waves or ebbing tides, city views of London or Paris, and the skyscrapers and bustle of New York. There are even one or two original drawings, pastels and paintings. In all the work the quality of craftsmanship is remarkable. Nevinson moves from drypoint to lithograph to mezzotint, using the particular qualities of each technique to the full extent. This is a show of much brilliance: a diversity to be relished.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.