Royal Academy, The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. Until 13 February 2022.
Frankly, I find it hard to imagine anyone liking the bulk of Constable’s works more than the bulk of Turner’s. The two painters, almost exact contemporaries, differed in their backgrounds and their approaches to their art. Constable, born into a well-to-do family in Suffolk, was forever the more conservative of the two, rooting himself in rather heavy landscapes of the region with which he was most familiar (I, for one, have never been convinced by his clouds); Turner, somewhat vulgar by comparison, urban and lower middle-class, was the more adventurous, both in the fact that he travelled abroad and that his canvases exhibit more restlessness, light and vigour. This exhibition at the Royal Academy redresses the balance a little, presenting the later, less restrained Constable, once he had let loose the dogs of his technique. We see straight away, in Rainstorm over the Sea, ca. 1824-1828 and the watercolour Stonehenge, 1835, that he could do a sky every bit as threatening as one of Turner’s, almost apocalyptic in their ferocity. And even on more familiar terrain, such as A Boat passing a Lock, 1826, the familiar English clouds now promise a drenching.
Was it the work of his rival that prompted this freer approach, or was it that Constable was now thinking about mortality? His wife Maria had died of tuberculosis at only forty years of age in 1828, and a year earlier so had his friend and mentor George Beaumont. Constable’s rendering of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, c. 1829 (also a favourite subject of Turner’s) is almost oppressive in its relentless monochrome. Constable died suddenly, aged sixty, in 1837.
There are some really pleasing pictures and sketches in this exhibition, in particular Netley Abbey by Moonlight, c. 1833, Chain Pier, Brighton, 1826-7, Hadleigh Castle, 1829, and Arundel Mill and Castle, 1837 (only exhibited after Constable’s death). If you find the reassuring pastoralism of The Hay Wain or all the Christmas card farmhouses a bit cloying, this show of his later work is just the job.
© Graham Buchan 2021