Preview - Constable: The Making of a Master at the V&A

Constable has long occupied a tranquil, homely corner in the hearts of British art lovers. His leafy landscapes are famed for their easy celebration of the quiet drama of the countryside. His winding rivers and relaxed rural scenes seem to be straightforward recreations of idealised natural beauty.

His most famous painting, The Hay Wain, is such a picture. A large scale canvas, six feet across, depicting a horse and cart fording the River Stour in Suffolk, is brimming with everything English. It’s got farmers, trees, dogs, clouds, a quaint cottage – it’s the sort of image that national anthems could be made of.

But have we got Constable a bit wrong? Maybe not entirely; but the V&A’s new exhibition, Constable: The Making of a Master, which opens on Saturday 20 September, shows us the drama and the determination behind Constable’s rise to success.

Constable not 622 466

This is one of London’s biggest exhibitions of the year, and the V&A has got its hands on relevant works by Rubens, Claude Lorrain, Lucian Freud and Turner (despite the truly awesome Late Turner exhibition at the Tate being on at the same time).

What we see is Constable as an artist at work; learning his craft from the old masters, and developing ground-breaking new techniques for his own works. The sheer resolve that he demonstrated in bringing landscape painting up to the same critical class as classical scenes is not something you can see simply by looking at his canvases. But through his notes, sketches and his own astonishing collection of prints, many of which are on show, we see a painter completely devoted to his ends.

But the most thrilling aspect of the exhibition is the pairing of Constable’s full-scale oil sketches with his finished paintings. So alongside The Hay Wain, hangs its original full-size rougher brother. And here we see speed and energy. Thick and gutsy broad swipes of paint have been applied with a pallet knife. It’s easy to imagine Constable standing in front of the vast canvas working away furiously. It’s completely at odds with the serene vision of the finished product, and it is a fascinating insight into how he worked.

Constable Hampstead

His epic visions of Salisbury Cathedral are also presented alongside the oil sketches. In the sketch the quickly worked oil paint presents roaring clouds, and a slight inaccuracy of perspective almost makes the cathedral appear to be sinking into a bog.

Here, Constable flies. The cavernous spaces the V&A has given to the biggest works is fantastic. With the before and after canvases alongside one another, viewers are given the best opportunity to understand, and perhaps re-evaluate Constable and his ascendency to popular acclaim.


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