Tate Online – Constable

Tim Batchelor, co-curator of the major Constable exhibition at Tate Britain this summer, tells us about the artist’s “six-foot” canvases and why if you can’t visit Tate Britain to see them yourself it’s worth a visit to www.tate.org.uk, exclusively sponsored by BT.

'The Haywain', by John Constable
The Haywain
(click for larger image)

From 1 June, a major exhibition at Tate Britain of John Constable’s seminal “six-foot” exhibition canvases, Constable: The Great Landscapes, offers the first opportunity to view them all together. The “six-footers” are among the best-known images in British art and comprise the famous series of views on the River Stour, which includes The Haywain 1820-1, as well as more expressive later works such as Hadleigh Castle 1829 and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831. These paintings lie at the very heart of Constable’s achievement. Not even in the artist’s lifetime were they ever brought together in the way that this exhibition has achieved.

The artist

John Constable (1776-1837) was born and raised at East Bergholt in Suffolk, the fourth child of Golding and Ann Constable. In 1792 he began work in the family business of trading and transporting corn and coal on and around the River Stour. However, his ambition was to be a painter. A local amateur artist, John Dunthorne, offered encouragement and after Constable created a series of six-foot wide landscapes, he was granted membership of the Royal Academy and won a gold medal at the Paris Salon.

To support himself and his family he painted portraits, several of which are in Tate’s collection and can be viewed at Tate Online, developed in association with BT. His real interest however was in painting the landscape of his birthplace. This agricultural region was unpopular at the time for landscape subjects but Constable said in his correspondence that it “made me a painter”.

“Six-footer” canvases

Constable’s decision to start painting major landscapes around 1818-19 marks a significant turning point in his career. He was determined to paint on a larger scale (about six foot by four-and-a-half feet) both to attract more notice at the Royal Academy exhibitions but also, it seems, to project his ideas about landscape onto a scale more in keeping with the achievements of classical landscape painting.

As important as the “six-footers” themselves was Constable’s decision to paint related full-scale preliminary sketches for most of the subjects. These large sketches, with their free and vigorous brushwork, were unprecedented at the time and they continue to fascinate artists, scholars and the general public. It has been said that it is this practice, more than any other aspect of Constable’s work, which establishes him as an avant-garde painter resolved to re-think the demands of his art and to address them in an entirely new way. The exhibition re-unites the full-scale sketches with their corresponding finished pictures in order to explore their role in Constable’s working practice. The display includes nine such pairings.

Highlights include the bringing together of the six River Stour pictures for the first time, which show how Constable succeeds in developing a single thematic concept – the life of the Suffolk river he had known since boyhood – and gradually invests it with a greater sense of drama, heroic action and narrative weight.

For further information on the exhibition you can visit the exhibition homepage.

Technical Research

The exhibition has prompted technical research into some of the works set to feature in the show. The results have revealed fresh perspectives on Constable’s working practice. In preparation for this exhibition, the majority of Constable’s exhibited “six-foot” paintings and their full-size sketches have undergone scientific analysis as part of the Constable Research Project. Together with technical reports supplied by the lending institutions, this has provided a substantial body of new information on Constable’s working methods of the 1820s and 1830s. In addition, Constable’s extensive and detailed correspondence reveals his artistic temperament and the extent to which his physical environment and domestic circumstances affected his work.

Tate Online, developed in partnership with BT, will provide the chance to further explore the work that has been carried out with a number of interactive features. By visiting the Constable’s Techniques page you will be able to see a variety of features from cross-sections of Constable’s paintings to x-rays of the sketches and the paintings. It is also possible to see interactive sketches which can be enlarged for a closer, more detailed observation.

View on the Stour near Dedham

'View on the Stour near Dedham', by John Constable
View on the Stour near Dedham
(click for larger image)

The sketch for View on the Stour near Dedham has been x-rayed for the first time, revealing a number of significant compositional alterations including three figures in the foreground that are not visible on the surface of the work.

View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822, is the fourth of the six large River Stour paintings that Constable exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1819 and 1825. As with the other great “six-foot” River Stour scenes, Constable made a preliminary full-scale compositional sketch in oils when planning the exhibition picture.

The x-ray clearly shows that Constable’s original working of the sketch included two boys fishing by the water’s edge and a little girl close to one of the wooden beams marking the edge of a boat building yard in the foreground. These figures were then painted out of the sketch by Constable and replaced by two young boys sitting on the edge of the river bank. In the finished exhibition painting, View on the Stour near Dedham, Constable altered the composition again and did not include the two boys from the sketch.

This new research carried out by Tate has revealed that by eliminating figurative detail in the foreground of the painting, Constable wanted to create a more powerful visual and narrative focus in the centre of the composition. He was to refine the design still further in the exhibition picture, by adding a second barge to the centre of the composition together with a man strenuously poling the boat mid-stream. It’s fascinating to see from the x-ray Constable’s working practice in creating the composition.

Constable wrote to his great friend, John Fisher, about the changes he had made to the sketch and the exhibition painting. He says in the letter that he had “taken away the sail”, and – as the x-ray proves – he can only have been referring here to a sail which once appeared on a barge in the sketch. Constable also told Fisher that he had introduced a second barge into the exhibition picture, with a “principal figure” strenuously poling the boat towards mid-stream.

The comparison between the sketch and the exhibition painting of View on the Stour will be one of the most exciting in the exhibition. This is the only pair from Constable’s River Stour series that has not been reunited since the early 1820s. They were last together side-by-side in Constable’s studio when he was working on the finished painting.

View on the Stour marks an important turning point in the River Stour series. Its ambitious design anticipates the even more dramatic compositions of The Lock, painted in 1824, and The Leaping Horse, 1825. All six paintings in the Stour series will be shown together with their full-scale sketches for the first time in Constable: the Great Landscapes at Tate Britain.

The exhibition is at Tate Britain from 1 June to 28 August 2006 and is sponsored by AIG.
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BT’s in-house team uses the possibilities of broadband to create highly innovative designs, interfaces and interactive videos for Tate, that have helped make www.tate.org.uk the UK’s favourite visual arts website. Through the provision of cutting edge online technical application, BT is making art accessible to all via www.tate.org.uk . Tate Online is exclusively sponsored by BT.

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