“Painting is but another word for feeling.” —John Constable (1776-1837)
Say you only slept an hour on the plane, the bus from Heathrow has dropped you in the heart of London on a sunny day in June, and as happy as you are to have escaped from a summer in the armpit of New Jersey (for instance, a second-floor apartment in downtown New Brunswick), you’re feeling dazed and confused after sorting out the Bed and Breakfast situation, and your great escape is being thwarted by the summer mob scene that is London. The sidewalks of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street are so crowded you can barely move. Not to worry. All you have to do is jump on a big red Number 24 doubledecker, stagger to the second story front, and after maybe a 15-minute ride, you’re right where you need to be. A brief hike later you’re lying on your back on Hampstead Heath where Keats and Coleridge once walked and dreamed and Constable painted. Such are the elements that go into making a tried and true Anglophile.
The Princeton University Art Museum’s must-see new exhibit, “John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum,” has arrived conveniently in accord with this Anglophile’s ongoing Charles Dickens bicentenary tribute to England featuring, so far, P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake, Cary Grant’s Bristol, Virginia Woolf’s Dorothy Wordsworth, and George Gissing’s Dickens. Anyone with a weakness for English landscapes and English weather will find everything their rainy heart desires in this show, and it doesn’t cost a cent, unless you want to buy the V & A’s handsome catalogue.
So vivid is Constable’s England, you might need to bring along a slicker, some Wellington boots, and an umbrella. If you ever wondered what light looks like before it’s been tamed, you can see it in its wild state here, in the quick of the moment Constable went after it and captured it. Stand in front of the immense oil “sketch” for The Hay Wain and it’s not an umbrella you need but a thesaurus. What can be said? Run of the mill superlatives won’t do. To appreciate the sheer presence and painterly volatility of the work, all you need is to compare it to the brighter, more contained, arranged, and ordered images of the finished painting reproduced on the web. The exhibition-ready version of The Hay Wain hanging in The National Gallery looks to have been toned down, the fireworks of the original act dispersed for the sake of a sunnier, prettier, more balanced and clearly defined piece of work that nonetheless contained scope and power enough to amaze Delacroix. The image at the center, the hay wagon of the title, looks ramshackle-raw and broken in the sketch, whole and functional in the finished painting. In the sketch, it’s as if the moment is in flux, like the aftershock of an explosion, white flecks of light in free fall, not yet intact, not yet adhering to the forms and surfaces as does the stable, flat, relatively domesticated sunlight of the final version.
As the various critics quoted in the exhibition catalogue make abundantly clear, “sketches” is a misnomer, except of course in that these creations were not thought of as “finished” works. Otherwise, you might as well say the same of Coleridge’s fragment “Kubla Khan” or Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Writing in 1908, Julius Meier-Graefe suggests that Constable “is never greater than here” where “the particles of paint are much more roughly treated than in the pictures.” By 1921, Charles John Holmes is noting “that Constable’s greatness will be seen to rest far more on his brilliant sketches and studies.” Clive Bell considered the sketches “perhaps, the most brilliant and characteristic part of his output,” while Roger Fry found “the real Constable” in the (that unworthy word again) sketches. On the centenary of Constable’s death in 1937, John Piper observed that his first drafts “mean more to us today than his big paintings” because “they are so complete, vivid and timeless.” Kenneth Clark considered “those so-called ‘full-size sketches’ … Constable’s supreme achievement” because “the force of sensation is always strong enough to lift them above the commonplace.”
For an artist with a gift for “the force of sensation,” painting outdoors, “in plein air,” makes existential sense, especially considering the wildly fluctuating phenomena of English weather and English skies. When Constable gazed from the top of Hampstead Heath at the view that he frequently confronted between 1819 and 1828 and tagged with a slew of titles, such as Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead; Hampstead Heath: Sand Pits: Storm Approaching; or Hampstead Heath: Stormy Noon, he was looking for, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “the strictly romantic thing called Weather; beautiful and changing as a woman.” In his essay, “The Glory of Grey,” Chesterton finds in “the great English landscape painters … this salient distinction: that the Weather is not the atmosphere of their pictures; it is the subject of their pictures. They paint portraits of the Weather. The Weather sat to Constable.”
More likely, the weather reared up and came at the painter, heaving toward him like some vision of fate. Anyway, why else was he out there if not to go head to head with nature, casting his lot with the elements? The confines of the studio are just that: confining; there’s no action, no plot beyond what the painter can generate. The weather offers an ever-changing narrative. Constable’s mission was not only to read it but to study it as a scientist would, to learn its moods and movements so well that he could channel them. He had a word for his adventures among the clouds; he called it “skying.” In the Study of Cirrus Clouds (c. 1821/22), Chesterton’s “beautiful and changing as a woman” metaphor is on the money; those seductive pastel shades of blue and soft creamy white have had their way with the painter addicted to the dark and brooding side of nature, the man who said, “I live by shadows, to me shadows are realities.”
Given the literary associations haunting Hampstead Heath, along with Constable’s eye for cirrus-capped narratives, it’s no wonder you find yourself thinking of “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,” a line Keats may have gleaned from one of his evening walks on the Heath the year before Constable became his Hampstead neighbor.
Constable’s first oil sketch of the Heath was painted in 1819 when he and his wife were living practically next door to the house Keats and his brothers had inhabited only the year before. It’s likely that the two men walked the Heath at the same time on one of those evenings Constable painted. Keats may even have stopped to peer over the artist’s shoulder, though I haven’t been able to find a reference to an actual meeting between the two. Keats was 23, in love with Fanny Brawne, walking and musing on the Heath, and writing the poems that would ensure his “place among the English poets” — The Odes, the Eves of St Agnes and St Mark, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the fragments from “Hyperion” and “Lamia,” among, amazingly, others. In the summer of 1819, John Constable was 44 and in the third year of his marriage, and the Heath was his backyard, as it was for Keats.
The wonder is that in the same year two such visionaries walked the same paths, shared the same landscape, viewed the same sunsets, and had similar if not actually identical thoughts. It’s possible to imagine Keats trying out his concept of the “Vale of Soul-Making” on the artist who once wondered “Why, then, may not landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?” With barely a year and a half to live, Keats might then have responded with the thought he expressed in a letter that same year, comparing “Clouds continually gathering and bursting” to “Circumstances,” so that “While we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events” where it “sprouts … grows, and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck.”
A contemporary poet has imagined this fantasy relationship into poetry. In “Constable’s Clouds for Keats,” Stanley Plumly, who once taught at Princeton, pictures clouds as “peaceable masters” coming in off the sea” and, addressing Constable, says “you write them down in oils because of their brilliance.” It being 1822, the year after Keats’s death, Plumly imagines “it would be right” to think of those clouds “domed above the Heath in their isolated chronicle — as elegies of the spirit.” After wishing Keats had never gone to “the artist’s paradise in Rome,” he fancies how it might have been had he stayed in Hampstead.
… He could be
crossing on Christchurch Hill Road now, then
over to the Elm Row and down Old Admiral’s Walk.
He could be looking at the clouds blooming between
buildings, watching the phantoms levitating stone.
He was there your first Heath summer writing odes,
feeling the weather change from warm to chill,
focused, no less than you, on daylight’s last detail,
wondering what our feelings are without us.
“John Constable: Oil Sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum” will be on view through June 10. The University Art Museum is the first of only two North American venues for this exhibition.