Constable comes home

The celebrated John Constable painting the Millstream. Picture: Paul Nixon Photography

The celebrated John Constable painting the Millstream. Picture: Paul Nixon Photography - Credit: Archant

Following a major exhibition at the V&A in London last year, celebrated artist John Constable is returning to Suffolk. Andrew Clarke previews a spectacular new show of his work in Ipswich

Constable - self portrait

Constable - self portrait - Credit: National Portrait Gallery London

John Constable is arguably one of Britain’s most recognised painters – and Ipswich has the largest collection of his work outside London.

This spring The Wolsey Gallery at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich will be hosting a stunning new show which examines Constable’s relationship with his home county, and examines how he applied the lessons he learned painting and sketching in and around Dedham to his later work.

As part of the exhibition, Constable’s celebrated Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831) is being loaned to Christchurch Mansion from Tate Britain – the first time that one of Constable’s ‘six-footers’ has been displayed in Ipswich. It will also be an opportunity for local people to view A Lime Kiln, the gallery’s new acquisition.

The exhibition will comprise finished paintings, studies, sketches and drawings on paper, enabling people to really appreciate the artist’s skill as a draughtsman and his love of the Suffolk countryside.

Constable kept returning to his Suffolk sketches throughout his life, frequently raiding his Suffolk sketchbooks for details to be included in later acclaimed works like The Hay Wain, The Leaping Horse, The Lock and Hadleigh Castle.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 depicts Salisbury Cathedral under both a heavy cloud and a striking arched rainbow viewed from across the River Nadder. The scene has been interpreted as a metaphor for political pressure felt by the Church of England, as well as the emotional turmoil Constable was feeling after the death of his wife.

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The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 1831, and later in a regional exhibition in Birmingham as directed by Constable, who wanted the work to be seen by as many people as possible.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is one of a series of monumental ‘six-footer’ canvases painted by the artist. This was the scale he reserved for his finest compositions – the paintings he wished to make a great impact in the crowded, competitive hang of the Royal Academy exhibitions. This work is the most visually spectacular of all the six-footers, the most loaded in meaning and the one of which he was most proud. Constable called it ‘The Great Salisbury’ and wrote: “I am told I got it to look better than anything I have yet done.”

The painting has been lent as part of the Aspire programme, a national network for Constable studies. It is a project set up by Tate Britain, National Galleries of Scotland, National Museum Wales, The Salisbury Museum, and Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service to enable this work to be seen in context alongside other great Constable collections around the country.

Constable may be seen as part of the art establishment today, but when he was painting he was helping to redefine art in the 19th century. He did something that very few artists at that time did – he painted from nature. He went out and created art on location. He took notebooks, sketch books and even, on occasions, entire canvases into the great outdoors and painted what he saw.

This was revolutionary at a time when most serious works were entirely studio creations. He explained to a friend: “Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originality must spring.”

Constable first moved outdoors in an attempt to capture the brilliant light of the Suffolk summer. In 1814 he began painting canvases on location with striking results. One example is Wivenhoe Park, Essex, 1816, an extraordinarily fresh view of a friend’s estate. Using finely executed brushwork, Constable carefully arranged a wealth of details across a wide vista, punctuating it with areas of light and shade to convey the radiance of a summer day. Pulling together so many elements into a harmonious composition proved a useful stepping stone towards his later large canvases.

Flatford Mill (Scene on a navigable river), created in 1817, was also completed primarily outdoors. It was Constable’s most ambitious painting to date – a large depiction of working life along the river and another important step toward the six-foot paintings. The subject was one he knew intimately from his childhood – the view faces toward the red brick buildings of his father’s mill, just beyond the river on which two barges head upstream.

In 1799, while living in Ipswich, Constable wrote of Suffolk to a friend: “It is a most delightful country for a painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.”

Suffolk formed an integral part of Constable’s view of the world, and the Ipswich collection focuses squarely on Constable’s relationship with the county. Christchurch Mansion holds not just finished paintings but also a vast array of sketches and studies.

The Ipswich collection holds: Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden, July 1815; Golding Constable’s Flower Garden, August 1815; Willy Lott’s House, Flatford; The Mill Stream, Flatford, 1814 as well as Ladies from the family of Mr William Mason of Colchester, 1802-6, and Ann Constable (1748-1815), the artist’s mother, 1804-05.

Bryony Rudkin, culture portfolio-holder at Ipswich Borough Council, said that the exhibition will be supported with an extensive education programme to explore Constable’s art and his love of the Suffolk countryside.

“We want visitors not only to enjoy the mansion and its great collections, but also to enjoy the mansion and sister museum in High Street, and take advantage of Ipswich as a centre from which to explore Constable Country in the Dedham Vale.”

Entry to Christchurch Mansion and Ipswich Museum is free. The Aspire exhibition featuring John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows will be on show at the Wolsey Gallery, Christchurch Mansion, from February 7, 2015 to January 31, 2016.