As Constables resurface, Tate introduces a new side of the artist

Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams discuss what we can learn from these new pictures


From 13 June to 15 September, the Tate Gallery is staging a major exhibition of the landscapes of John Constable. Since the Constable bicentenary exhibition at the Tate in 1976 many new works have been discovered and advances made in Constable scholarship. Leslie Parris, Deputy Keeper of the British collection at the Tate Gallery and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable expert, have organised the coming exhibition to allow a new look at the landscape paintings.

Constable is such an important artist that in a sense there’s always a case for having an exhibition of his work. But did you have particular reasons for wanting to mount this show at this time?

Leslie Parris: Yes. there have been so many new Constable’s emerging. After the 1976 Bicentenary Exhibition held here at the Tate lots of stuff started to come through and by 1986 there was so much that we felt it was time that the public saw these often very exciting new works. We therefore submitted a proposal to the Trustees of the Tate Gallery for an exhibition. At that point it was going to be basically just the new paintings.

So do you feel that the Constable you are going to present in this exhibition is significantly different from the one people normally think of?

Ian Fleming-Williams: To a large extent, yes. I think about half the works to be shown will not be familiar to the British public.

In what other ways will it be unlike the 1976 bicentenary show?

L.P. The new exhibition is organised in a different way. It isn’t arranged on a strictly chronological basis. Although it is loosely chronological we break this sequence frequently in order to form groups of works, often of slightly different dates, so that we can demonstrate Constable’s interest in particular themes and show how he approached the same subject in different ways.

I.F-W. As well as this part-thematic arrangement, the show is divided into two main parts – the “Suffolk Years” and the “London Years”. The “Suffolk Years” are the time up to just after his marriage in 1816.

L.P. This is the period which has been filled out most by the new pictures that have emerged recently. One picture which springs to mind is his 1816 exhibit “The Wheatfield”, which was totally unknown. There were two drawings in the Louvre which might have been connected with it, but nobody had any idea what the overall image was, and that’s a picture which adds a lot because it’s got many more figures than most of his pictures.

I.F-W. At this point he settles in London permanently and his visits to Suffolk become fairly infrequent.

What would you say were the main things that changed?

I.F-W. The main thing is that he stopped painting Suffolk subjects from nature. In his later Suffolk years he was concentrating very much on trying to make pictures for exhibition painted largely on the spot – though finished in the studio. Now he developed them entirely in the studio. The ideas get bigger and bigger. It was an entirely different procedure and it produced quite different sorts of paintings.

Was any of this in his mind, as far as one can tell, when he made the decision to move to London?

L.P. Having got married he realised even more strongly that he had to make a mark. He had to establish himself at the Royal Academy. I think this has very much to do with the increase in the size of his canvases – the move to painting “six foot” pictures. Only with these would he actually be noticed.

One of the things that strikes me when reading about Constable is his slow development. He worked for years, painfully and with difficulty, without recognition. His persistence is admirable – rather like that of Cézanne later in the century. Yet like Cézanne, too, he was also fortunate in having the means to work so long without recompense. For he did not have to earn his living. Is that correct?

I.F-W. I think so. His father gave him an allowance which enabled him to start life as an artist. But his parents were always at him, trying to get him to work harder and to paint portraits; or if he was going to paint landscapes – well, at least to finish them! I think one could in a sense fairly call Constable a semi-professional. And there is a certain sort of lack of professionalism in his attitude to some of his paintings.

I.F-W. At the same time fame and fortune meant a great deal to him. He did want popularity, desperately wanted it. It comes up again and again in his letters. He wanted it both ways.

How’s the exhibition going to end?

L.P. It ends with a large room of paintings from the 1830s which show a great variety, we think, of approaches to landscape painting. But we won’t be able to tell exactly how various they are until we see them hanging together.

Do you feel that this is one of the important reasons for mounting an exhibition?

L.P. Yes. This is something which you can do in an exhibition which you can’t do in any other way. You can’t do it by writing a book. You actually have to have the physical objects there.

But there will also be a contribution made by the catalogue.

I.F-W. In the entries to the catalogue we are inviting people to look at the paintings and drawings very closely and see what a lot there is in them; especially some of the better known paintings, before which people are possibly apt to just stand and say ‘oh yes, that’s so and so’ and then move on. We are asking them to look more closely and see things that have not been pointed out before.

Could you give me an example?

I.F-W. Well in the famous “Cornfield” (National Gallery) there have been various interpretations as to why the boy is drinking, why the sheep have stopped, what the dog is doing. It’s quite clear progress. In fact there is a pigeon in the tree above, and the dog is glancing up because of the clacking noise of the pigeon’s wings. Constable is in fact inviting us to hear this.

That’s very interesting. So he’s actually wanting us to hear sounds in his pictures. Are there other examples?

I.F-W. Yes, in the “Leaping Horse” there’s a moorhen right in the foreground that’s coming screaming towards you with its wings outstretched. Constable actually describes this in a letter. And the reason why the moorhen is screaming through the snares is because the horse is jumping overhead, and there’s a thunder of hooves. So it’s not only the sensation of the wind and the sunlight and the sparkle that he wants you to share, but also actual sound.

We’ve been talking about paintings a lot but, of course, another important part of the exhibition is the drawings that you’re including.

I.F-W. Yes. There’s going to be two rooms of drawings. Unlike the rest of the exhibition they are arranged strictly chronologically. The first drawing is from the time when he first emerges as an artist of personality, in 1798. And the last drawing is the last dated drawing from nature that we know.

What date was that?

I.F-W. October 1835. One criticism made of his Bicentenary exhibition was that we showed none of his oil sketches from nature in the last part of his life. But of course there weren’t any.

Do you regard him as a great draughtsman?

I.F-W. Absolutely. The thing that has caused him to be underrated as a landscape draughtsman is that his favourite medium was pencil, and pencil is a very ordinary instrument. It’s black and white. And people tend to go for colour.

Why did he choose pencil?

I.F-W. I think it’s scrutiny. Turner’s work with a pencil is rather cursory, whereas Constable goes into the very quality of what he is studying; the texture of bark, and whether the tree is rotten, whether the branches have broken, where the leaves are dead, and so on.

L.P. He’s also very much concerned with the way in which the light reveals things. In Constable it’s the light which actually forms the objects, whereas with Turner the light really suffuses them. It doesn’t define them, it dissolves them. What we hope will emerge will be a much fuller picture of Constable himself than has been available in the past.

And who is the show for? The public or the connoisseur?

L.P. For everyone.

I.F-W. It’s a show to be enjoyed at various levels. With the emphasis on enjoying.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Just listen to that Constable'