Tag Archives: national gallery

in constable country, again

Monday 11 June 2012

last year, i wrote that i planned to make a winter visit to constable country. well, dear reader, i did make a special visit to ‘Constable country’ in early march, which as any British person or Englishman will unhappily remind you if asked, still felt like the depths of winter. it was a bright day, on the cusp between winter and spring, the trees were still bare of leaves but the many surrounding fields were a vibrant shade of green with the sowings of winter wheat.

willy lotts cottage, dedham, constable country

Willy Lott’s cottage, Flatford Mill, March 2012

i was very pleased the two ducks stopped waddling briefly for this photograph by the glassy millpond at flatford mill, but i was disappointed the glare of the sun burnt out the white fluffy clouds. the owners of Flatford Mill (now a field studies centre) must work very hard to preserve this iconic English pastoral scene so that visitors can say how wonderfully it still resembles the famous painting nearly two hundred years later.

here is a small reminder of the painting…

the haywain, national gallery

The Hay Wain, 1821 © National Gallery, London

and here is my ‘impromptu’ contemporary reference to the hay wain

the hay wain, 2011

a toy farm trailer in a farm trailer, round about noon, early september 2011

and so began a very pleasant circular walk around flatford, firstly across a lush green meadow, meeting with some inquisitive sheep…

three sheep in a field, dedham, constable country

[in the (brief) company of wolves]

i had heard that in ‘Constable country’ there are powers in place to minimise unsightly blots on the landscape such as electricity pylons, but it was only a few minutes into our walk (after the brief encounter with the ‘wolves’) when i looked up and saw this…

electricity pylon, flatford, dedham vale, constable country

[an electricity pylon & power lines spanning constable country]

no matter; i was here for the day to walk about and maybe sketch a little, to see some ‘Constable’ scenery…

we passed by and walked around a lovely old woodland, called ‘the grove’ – and we didn’t meet any other walkers along the path. i made a note of this old, weathered tree stump (below, sketched from two angles) as perhaps being an old hawthorn as it was very tightly gnarled and twisted but was also quite small compared to the other trees. these are two very quick sketches. sketching tree forms such as this feels much like gestural life-drawing; you work within the restraints given and you try not to be too ‘precious’ about it.

sketchbook drawings of old, gnarled trees, near flatford, dedham vale, constable country

two more very quick bark/tree sketch studies, in graphite, drawn while standing…

further on, the landscape opened out and i made some notes of the field names (based on the map). the second sketch is a view looking down a hill back towards flatford mill. the third sketch is looking at the wide expanse of dedham vale, with gibbonsgate field, miller’s field and church field.

sketchbook, sketches of fields and hedegrows, flatford, dedham vale, constable country

three sketches, a winter hedgerow and some green fields…

towards the end of the walk we met a dog walker, or rather his two dogs made their keen acquaintances with us – and shortly after that i found this large piece of metal detritus on the perimeter of a ploughed field – a very mangled, flattened tin bucket – and i considered it to be the finest ‘Constable country’ find of the day.

old tin bucket, constable country

a constable country souvenir, a very mangled, flattened tin bucket (verso)

it was a very pleasant, relaxing walk (with afternoon tea taken later on in the day at a delightful Dedham teashop), but it was not possible to walk far and also find time to draw; so, i enjoyed the walking.

it was also nice to take another peek into one of John Constable’s early sketchbooks online (collection of the V&A Museum, London). Constable’s many studies and sketches were invaluable visual resources throughout his career. after Constable moved to London with his wife (and a fast-expanding family) he only returned to Suffolk for a few days or weeks each summer (which would explain the distinct lack of winter landscapes), although he travelled quite extensively throughout England due to painting commissions. on one occasion, while working on his preparatory studies for The Hay Wain, Constable required a sketch of a hay cart, and a young Johnny Dunthorne (the teenage son of a friend back in Suffolk) was duly sent out to make an initial study which Constable could work from and refine back in his Hampstead studio. i can quite understand the artistic frustration of earnestly painting a summer scene in the winter months, and many miles away from its source.

by all accounts, painting the The Hay Wain was an anxious task for Constable, a difficult and slow to resolve painting, hastily completed for The Royal Academy summer exhibition – but that is far from most people’s minds as they gaze into the romantic, pastoral quietude of the scene. i think most painters will empathise with that particular anxiety of making work for art exhibitions. add to that anxiety, that his young wife was expecting their third child (they had seven children together in total), and they were perhaps conscious of outgrowing their new hampstead home, as well as the ever-present difficulty of making an income from art to support his young family.

it was amusing to read that they had to remove a window from the property to deliver the finished painting to Somerset House (the location of the Royal Academy at that time) – although the painting was (probably) not completely finished, as – as was the custom – artists often completed their paintings in situ in the gallery on varnishing days (aware of the competition!). Constable was anxious that this painting would sincerely impart all he felt about nature and the landscape, and that it would make a good impression at a time when the fashion in painting was for the very grand, the mythical, the historical & the dramatic…

I hear little of landscape – and why? The Londoners with all their ingenuity as artists know nothing of the feeling of country life (the essence of landscape) – any more than a hackney coach horse knows of pasture.

John Constable, in a letter to John Fisher (a good friend and patron), dated 1st April 1821, shortly before completion of the painting Landscape, Noon later to become more widely known as The Hay Wain, a title first suggested by John Fisher.

John Constable was born on this day, 11th June, 1776.

see also, in constable country and on thinking, clouds in a sketchbook

a musing at the museum

Sunday 15 April 2012

taxidermy in the museum, birds

isolated poses looking in different directions for the purpose of understanding

the ornithology room at the museum was quiet on the afternoon i visited. with the current trend for the quasi-museological in the art world, the artfully ‘animated’ array of bird species started to take on the uncanny presence of a contemporary art installation. naturally, i could not resist relating the experience of many preserved, dead animals in a room in a museum to the current retrospective of damien hirst’s work at tate modern, london

taxidermy in the museum, stuffed tiger

the physical (im)possibility of life in the mind of a taxidermist

a prime example of taxidermy is exhibited in this ‘lively’ looking tiger – simultaneously both frightening and quite frightful, a curious inversion of the hunter and the hunted

the castle museum‘s natural history collections, as seen in the old mahogany wood cabinets (above) to the meticulously staged landscape dioramas (some with sound effects), altogether display an exhaustive if slightly eccentric fascination with all things natural and wild. many of the specimens on display are acquisitions from the collections of local edwardian or victorian naturalists – expertly catalogued, neatly labelled & now tamely presented. it reminded me of a time when i visited tring natural history museum many years ago, and ‘seeing’ (unbelievably, absurdly, curiously) two fleas dressed as mexican dancers

however dear reader, i digress… this museum visit was really an opportunity to see Titian’s painting, Diana and Actaeon, in the flesh (the painting is currently on a national tour, cost a staggering £50 million and it was ‘bought’ for the nation by a consortium of funders). i sat quietly in its great presence for many minutes, but it failed to animate my interest beyond the myth of the young hunter (Actaeon) who stumbles upon the chaste goddess of the hunt (Diana). deep thoughts about Titian the great painter and the great skill of this painting were slightly distracted by two toddlers who found the pattern of the air-conditioning grid on the floor more fascinating. it was perhaps not the admiring, attentive audience that the great Titian would have wanted.

Diana and Actaeon is one of six large mythological paintings by Titian (inspired by Ovid’s series of stories, the ‘Metamorphoses’), as part of an ambitious commission for King Philip II of Spain – and it would seem that Titian relished the challenge.

titian, diana and actaeon, nationl gallery london
Diana and Actaeon, 1556–9, oil on canvas, 184.5 x 202.2 cm, © National Gallery, London

even with the protective barrier of ‘glass’ Diana and Actaeon the painting pulsated with epic drama and spectacle – in sheer scale, in the dynamics of composition, in the lushness of colours and with every florid brushstroke. i sat on the bench, i looked and i observed, and then i began to wonder; Titian may have been a great painter of full-bodied flesh but he was no painter of women.

it bothered me that diana had a very small head (for a goddess) and that her legs were out of proportion with her torso (and with each other too, it seems – and, as if my eyes wanted to deceive me even further into finding more faults, i started seeing a third leg?! i take it art historians forego these small anatomical inaccuracies (as we might do when watching a sci-fi movie, the special effects versus continuity, etc)

however, when viewed in the context of a museum exhibit (this is a painting that comes with its own personal security guard) i felt compelled to admire Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon‘ for its art historical significance. by all accounts Titian was at the top of the art hierarchy when he created this magnificent series of paintings, a showman in command of his medium (and his audience) and a wealth of rich patrons, and the art ‘critics’ of venice praised him (is that an oxymoron?) – does this ring any bells with anyone?

however, when removing the lavish ‘history’ of Diana and Actaeon (expertly provided by the museum to enrich the visual experience) i later began to ponder how an outsider might ‘interpret’ the dramatic scene.

idle thoughts led me to make a comparison of Diana and Actaeon with this quite well-known advertisement from the 1970s (badedas), as a number of visual features are superficially similar – outside/inside retreat, the swathe of the curtain, the private pleasure of bathing, a moment of alarm or surprise, the intrusion – and what might happen next. in fact, a number of the badedas adverts played on a kind of faux-historical tableaux.

badedas bath advert, 1970s

however, unlike the hunter goddess diana, who is clearly enraged and will later seek her revenge (in the next episode of the story), the badedas bathing lady does not appear to be in any hurry to reach for her shotgun to do away with the red-shirted voyeur. it’s all in the semiotics (reminded of my MA thesis, which was on beauty, women & advertising).

when i first saw Diana and Actaeon i was put in the position (or mind) of the King who commissioned it, and from that perspective the painting becomes an object of status, wealth, and with that the delight and desire of looking & owning. the badedas advertisement’s original message was [good] ‘things happen after a badedas bath’ and it has resonances with many other ‘luxury’ lifestyle advertisements of this bygone era, such as ‘imperial leather‘ and ‘milk tray‘ (the milk tray man). how times (and contexts) change as this advertisement now seems very sinister.

when we look at an object or image (as art), into that context of looking comes prior knowledge or cultural experience and this influences interpretation and understanding. what is discussed or written about the art beforehand (and afterwards) is often more persuasive and conveys more meaning than by the simple act of just looking. the viewpoint changes, the viewer changes, the context changes, the meaning changes.

In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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.