Martin Gayford

Constable on sea

As this brilliant new exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery demonstrates, Constable’s paintings of Brighton’s sparkling sea and stormy skies are superb

John Constable was, as we say these days, conflicted about Brighton. On the one hand, as he wrote in a letter, he was revolted by this marine Piccadilly, populated with: ‘ladies dressed & undressed — gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers — footmen — children — nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen’, all mixed together ‘in endless and indecent confusion’.

On the other, as a brilliantly conceived little exhibition at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery makes clear, the town was one of a small number of locations that were crucial to his art. He went there, however, not because of the warm friendships that took him to Salisbury or the childhood memories and associations that made the landscape around East Bergholt — for him — charged with emotion, but because of his wife Maria’s weak chest.

The sea air of Brighton was considered better for invalids than smoggy Regency London, choked with coal smoke. So Constable — who hated to be separated from Maria and their children — was obliged to leave his studio on Charlotte Street for extended periods in 1824–25 and 1827, and carry on working by the seaside as best he could.

Storm clouds often mass in the skies of the pictures he did there. Doubtless, this being the English coast, the weather really was often wet. But those seaside stays must also have been overshadowed by Maria’s tuberculosis, from which she died in 1828.

The Brighton pictures have not been much considered as a group. Until, that is, 2010 when Peter Harrap, a painter and curator of the exhibition, found himself living in the very house which the Constables rented in the summer of 1824, and working — very probably — in the attic room that Constable used as a temporary studio.

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