Monthly Archives: October 2011

in constable country

Monday 10 October 2011

this is a small toy farm trailer or cart (or hay wain) situated inside a much larger, rusty farm trailer (or hay wain) – it would probably look quite effective with a muddy puddle. this photograph is not a deliberate social comment on farming but is more the result of chance, circumstance & a small act of spontaneity…

toy hay wain in a haywain - photograph

[a toy farm trailer, 15 september 2011, 12.19pm]

constable, hay wain, painting, national gallery, london

the hay wain, 1821, 130.2 x 185.4 cm
© national gallery

john constable’s most notable pastoral landscape painting, ‘the hay wain’ (1821), which is on display in the national gallery‘s permanent collection in london, was first exhibited at the royal academy, but it was slated by some critics as looking rough and ‘unfinished’. it didn’t sell. in the catalogue it was entered as ‘landscape, noon’ reflecting constable’s concern with recording details of time as evidenced in his oil sketches. in 1822 constable wrote that:

‘i have had some nibbles at my picture […] i have a professional offer of £70 for it to form part of an exhibition in paris.’

‘the hay wain’ was later awarded a gold medal by king charles x of france at a paris salon exhibition of constable’s work in 1824. the painting was purchased by an art dealer (arrowsmith), sold on a number of times eventually making its way into the permanent collection at the national gallery. you can order an extra large print of the haywain on canvas (with a contemporary wood frame) from the national gallery’s gift shop for £175.

as many people will know, ‘the hay wain’ was not painted on location (willy lott’s cottage, flatford mill, suffolk – it is now a field studies centre) but in constable’s hampstead (london) studio from many preliminary sketches – a working method which is still pursued by many landscape painters today.

after looking up john constable on the the royal academy’s list of RAs and viewing some work there i was reminded of this photograph i took a while back of tree tops (or clouds) near the river…

trees sky clouds study

[cloud study, suffolk, tree at left, may 2009] (seen in post, on bad photography)

because it bore a striking similarity to this small cloud study by constable…

constable, cloud study, hampstead, c1821, royal academy, london

cloud study, hampstead, tree at right, 11 September 1821, 24.1 x 29.9 cm
© royal academy

i had not seen the royal academy’s online collection of john constable’s work before now (including the cloud study above), many of which are small studies on paper or later engravings published by constable (perhaps the gicleé prints of their day), donated to the royal academy after his death.

here are two of my sketchbook studies of trees. the first drawing is of a long-since dead oak tree in a meadow near the marshes, first shown in this post, art and making a living.

sketchbook, drawing study of an old oak tree

[study of the trunk of an oak tree, ink, pencil, crayon & watercolour, april 2010]

sketchbook, drawing study of tree in woods, jazz green

[study of tree in woodland, pencil, wax crayon & watercolour, april 2010]

this second sketchbook drawing of a coppiced tree in the woods is quite different, but nevertheless it seems to be related (first seen in the post, on having a conversation with a tree).

in these two very hasty sketchbook studies of trees i am reminded of what happened on both of those days and what made me go out sketching. i see now how i failed to impart the intricate detail of bark as evidenced in this small tree study by john constable (illustrated below). i have not seen this small painting by constable in ‘real life’ and i only came across it recently. it is in the archives of the victoria & albert museum (in london). what struck me immediately was the intensity of constable’s gaze in such a small study (little more than A4), and that the line of sight indicates he was sitting down only a few steps away from the tree. who, these days, would sit down and gaze at one tree all day long? actually, i think i would like to study trees (or nature) all day (and not just for a few minutes here and there) and create some new art out of the experience, if the demands of a day job were not a consideration.

constable, study of the trunk of an elm tree, c.1821, victoria & albert museum, london

study of the trunk of an elm tree c.1821, 30.6 x 24.8 cm
© victoria & albert museum

Many of my Hamptstead friends may remember this ‘young lady’ [an ash tree] at the entrance to the village. Her fate was distressing, for it is scarcely too much to say that she died of a broken heart. I made this drawing [Study of Trees, pencil on paper, circa 1821] when she was in full health and beauty; on passing some times afterwards, I saw, to my grief, that a wretched board had been nailed to her side, on which was written in large letters: ‘All vagrants and beggars will be dealt with according to law.’ The tree seemed to have felt the disgrace, for even then some of the top branches had withered. Two long spike nails had been driven far into her side. In another year one half became paralysed, and not long after the other shared the same fate, and this beautiful creature was cut down to a stump, just high enough to hold the board.

[Lecture by John Constable, given at Hamptstead (July 1836), quoted in Constable, Parris, Fleming-Williams, Tate Gallery Publications, London 1993, p. 391]

the above quote from a lecture by constable in 1836 adds an obvious layer of poignancy to this small painting even if it is does not refer to the same tree. the heartfelt sentiment of constable’s concern with nature is made clear. something drew him to study and paint this elm tree with tenderness and deep respect.

it is fascinating to contemplate that this small painting by constable (study of the trunk of an elm tree, 1821) pre-dates the invention of photography by ten years or more. it has many of the objective characteristics of contemporary landscape photography i have seen and yet there is (to me) a difference between the objective painting study of a tree and an objective photograph of a tree.

the photographer, although considering and planning his/her composition for a long time will finally only look through the lens of the camera for a few seconds – it is the photograph and not the photographer that ‘looks’ deeply and extends the gaze for all time. when we look at a landscape photograph we are more likely to be engaged by the ‘view’ and have less regard for the viewpoint of the photographer. by virtue of the medium of photography their creative input, although considered & critical, is ultimately transient and perhaps secondary to the moment of recording.

the opposite seems to be true of painters. time is evident in the surface as well as the subject of the painting. we witness or see both elements, of the observer and the observed, at the same time. in this small tree study by john constable, it is apparent he ‘observed’ the tree for many hours, most likely over the course of a couple of days. it is perhaps mid summer, and (as above) maybe in a park in hampstead (in the 1820’s hampstead would have been a quiet ‘village’ suburb of outer london). i shall presume that constable’s intense gaze was uninterrupted and he was necessarily working in solitude. it seems so perfectly ‘framed’ as a study i wonder if he used a viewfinder or other optical device, or whether it was later cut down to size. i was also reminded of the pre-raphaelite brotherhood of painters and their concerns with truth to nature.

but, what relevance does this very brief analysis of constable’s work have for me as an artist in 2011? a few months back i acquired a very large impasto-varnished reproduction on canvas of ‘the hay wain’ and it is now proudly hanging in the house. it has a chipped but quite ornate gold picture frame and it probably came from a pub clearance sale (many rural pubs have closed down and are sold on as private residences) but i found the canvas in a local junk shop. this reproduction ‘painting’ on canvas cost me considerably less than those offered by the national gallery gift shop (as mentioned above). it was undoubtedly intended as a piece of nostalgia, now in more ways than one. it was once hung with sentimental pride on a wall, a period feature or characterful adornment, then later it was discarded or sold at a clearance auction, eventually finding its way into my possession.

my inferior reproduction of ‘the hay wain’ reminds me of the nostalgia that we (in suffolk especially) may have for the life & works of john constable. often (as i look at my constable ‘painting’ daily), i have entertained the idea of doing something mildly subversive (as with the mona lisa jigsaw), painting over parts of it or collaging on a 4×4 or a wind turbine, but would it be anything other than a visual joke (along the lines of banksy, for example)? this sort of artistic appropriation, intervention or vandalism has been done many times (and often very well) but it is not really what i want to do. visual jokes & metaphors as social commentary are often good (daumier, for example), but i can’t help wanting to be more passive in my intentions.

however, i thought of doing something else, so that the constable ‘painting’ would not be damaged or altered in any way (it is kitsch enough, thank you). i decided to use the ‘painting’ as a faux pastoral backdrop, placing myself within (or more accurately, in front of) the suffolk landscape as offered by ‘the hay wain’ – and a little in the style of a 19th century portrait. i don’t know if society painters in the 19th century ever wore floppy, velvet caps but i was also thinking of one of rembrandt’s later self portraits.

rembrandt van rijn ‘self portrait’ 1659 84.5 x 66 cm
© national gallery of art


portrait of the artist in front of constable painting, the hay wain
i was considering using this image as the picture for my about page (as a suffolk-based artist), but perhaps it is a little too obscure in its reference…

the british landscape painter john constable has been intriguing me much more of late. i want to learn more about his motivations and his psychological mindset, especially the mood of solitude and the perceptible traces of melancholia in some of his later work. i don’t think the writer john ruskin was a big fan of constable’s work – he was more taken by the high drama of jmw turner.

i also want to make a visit to ‘constable country’ in the depths of winter, when most of the tourists have gone, when the trees are bare, perhaps on a grey, misty or frosty day – as prior knowledge of constable’s work inevitably ‘colours in’ my vision of that particular landscape. i quite like these two quotes which i think impart a little of constable’s earnestness in seeking and depicting a truth to nature:

‘when i sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing i try to do is to forget that i have ever seen a picture.’

‘willows, old rotten, banks, slimy posts and brickwork. i love such things.’

[john constable]

this seems to be the critical element; to get to the truth of personal experience is to momentarily forget all that has gone before and just be immersed in the moment. an art historian & writer once told me (to paraphrase the conversation from my memory) that all art has to be subversive these days. it has become unfashionable to seek elements of beauty, sentiment or nostalgia as much contemporary art, the art most revered by curators or debated in the arts media, becomes more politicised, subversive or activist in its intent. if there is anything subversive in my humble efforts (which i doubt there is) it is that i have eschewed the realism of western pictorial traditions in my abstracted re-imaginings of small aspects of the landscape, of the rustic and the rural, of ‘nature’ co-existing with the man-made. i don’t have to look very far to find it.

over the summer i have been reading quite a lot, mostly books that have been suggested to me that i repeatedly dip into. i also made new art for the exhibitions i was featured in but there are many things i still want to finish before the end of the year. there is not much in the way of exhibiting in the very near future so i will continue to investigate & pursue relevant opportunities. i think the next couple of months will be quiet & focused as i continue to investigate philosophically, visually & materially the things that fascinate me. i doubt very much that i will want to openly ‘blog’ about what i am doing on a weekly basis because it is often a deeply personal and open-ended process.

the subject of this particular ‘blog post’ developed out of two unrelated objects around the house, a faux painting and a small toy, which led me to think again about constable’s work and it also enabled some connections to a couple of previous sketchbook drawings of trees. this blog post took me a good many hours to formulate, structure & draft up and yet i have only briefly touched upon a subject that has relevance to me as an east anglian artist. in this regard, this could be seen within an ongoing reflective context as i am learning more about myself as an artist as i think and write about these small things. i welcome any comments or suggestions, as usual.