John Constable. One of the most famous British painters ever, and one of the most divisive. Some love him; others, like me, feel like his finished works are tidal waves of saccharine idealised depictions of the British countryside.
Too often Constable’s oils just kill me off – too many elements and too romanticised. Bubbling brooks, carts and horses, boys playing with dogs, cows in fields, rainbows in skies… And all in a single painting. No wonder his paintings could take him ten years to complete.
Yet his technical skills were wonderful but sometimes these get lost in his paintings packed to the brim with so many component parts. Almost literally impossible to see the wood for the trees.
And this is where this new show at The Lightbox in Woking comes in as it has taken the decision to focus on a single subject – Constable’s fascination with the weather. And by doing so, it allows us to strip out all those overwhelming details and admire the man’s skill and observation on an area which he knew a lot about.
Constable was very much of the conviction that artist’s should paint from observation, that they should have direct experience of what they paint. And more than this, he believed that it was his duty to develop a scientific understanding of what he painted so that he could represent it more faithfully. So, with regards to weather, this led Constable to detailed study of meteorological science.
And much of the result of those studies is on show here.
Observing the Weather has brought together an impressive variety of works, including oils, watercolours and drawings, from many galleries across the UK. A particular highlight for me was his many studies of cloud formations over Hampstead Heath. Faithfully, Constable would walk out onto the Heath at a similar time each day and paint the sky as he saw it. By necessity these studies were quick – short, rapid brushstrokes to capture the delicate hues in the sky, the direction of light or the shape of individual clouds. But it was these preparatory sketches and studies that he would use as a resource when composing and completing his complex final works.
And yet though these studies were never meant to be finished works in themselves, there is much in them to delight and enjoy. It’s as if the speed required to complete these studies freed him from the desire, the burden even, to complete perfect and forensic works. The studies are simple, sparse both in composition and colour palette, and that in turn makes them more interesting.
The obvious highlight of the show is a full colour oil sketch of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. The completed painting is now part of the Tate Collection, and it’s not one of my faves – again too many elements – but here, stripped of its rainbow, it is a more expressive piece. The grey and stormy clouds have more clout, their looming presence more threatening. And, interestingly, probably a more accurate representation of British skies than the completed version with the rainbow!
If only Constable could have stuck to the maxim that less is more. Sadly, he didn’t. But here, in these focused works, we have the opportunity to experience what might have been.
The Lightbox, Woking, Surrey to May 8, 2016
Admission £5 (Under 18s free)
- John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, from the Meadows, 1831 © Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London Corporation
- John Constable, Study of Clouds, oil on paper, 1822 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
- John Constable, Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, oil on canvass, 1819 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London