Turner to Monet
The bequest by Miss Isabel Constable in 1888 of several hundred of her father’s oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and bound sketchbooks – like Turner’s gift of his works to the nation – have profoundly affected the way we think about nineteenth-century British art. Artists have always prepared sketches, rapid visual notations of a first idea, details of figures or elements of a composition, or cartoons and other working drawings to aid in the scaling-up of a composition for the final painting. But these have traditionally been regarded as private works, or expendable, rarely for public display, at least in the artist’s lifetime. The extensive holdings of Constable’s small oils in public collections provide a unique opportunity to ‘get inside’ the artist’s head, to examine in detail his technique and working processes.
A view at Salisbury from the library of Archdeacon Fisher’s house displays Constable’s ability to combine precise observation with a quality of mystery. It is an astonishingly energetic work, particularly for one contained within such small dimensions. A lovely contrast exists between the expanse of sky, conveyed in the broadest strokes with large sections of the buff-coloured ground showing through, and the fine brushstrokes of the trees, grass and water below. The right side of the painting is dominated by a large bank of storm clouds which have overtaken the clear blue sky. In the grove of trees below the clouds, we can make out a tiny figure, his torso made of lively dabs of red paint, who seems to be carrying something on his back. Tree-trunks in the foreground, with bright green new foliage, are rendered in confident flicks of black paint, while the settlement and distant hills are suggested by darker greens, grey-blues and whites. The two blocks of orange, roofs peeking through the trees at centre, link back to the figure. This is a fine example of Constable’s swift and easy notation, his extraordinary facility for communicating mood, and his ‘Art of seeing Nature’.1
Constable painted from nature all his life, and believed that exhibition pictures should connect with close study of the landscapes portrayed. The idea of working from home, of conveying the vista from an identified place or the view from a window, is also related to German Romanticism. Works by Friedrich and Carus often include a figure looking longingly out of the window or seated on a terrace, suggesting the confines of the material world and a quest for the eternal. This painting also has a personal element: Constable and John Fisher had been friends since 1811. The artist was a regular visitor to Salisbury until 1829, when his health declined. This view, looking towards Harnham Ridge, was painted on Constable’s second-last visit to his friend.2Like others of 15, 22 and 25 July, as well as several undated works, it shows a range of weather conditions and cloud formations.3The artist seems to have found comfort in his work at Leydenhall following the death of his wife Maria in 1828.
1 The phrase is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, from his ‘Discourse’, no. 12, vol. 2, p. 104, quoted in Michael Rosenthal, Constable, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987, p. 22.
2 The work is inscribed on the back, in pencil: ‘Fisher’s – Library – Salisbury Sunday July 12. 1829 4 o clock afternoon’.
3 See, for example, A view at Salisbury from Fisher’s house, dated 1820 or 1829, which, by including a larger foreground section of wall, foliage and fences, emphasises the fact that the view is from a window in the south wing of the house; collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London [320-1888].