Constable: The Making of a Master at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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John Constable, The Hay Wain. 1821. Image courtesy The National Gallery. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The Hay Wain (1821). Copyright image courtesy of The National Gallery, used with permission.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) presents Constable: The Making of a Master. The exhibition looks at the work of John Constable (1776-1837), one of Britain’s most well-known and highly respected artists.

Constable: The Making of A Master presents more than 150 works, including the artist’s most famous work, The Way Wain. Also on show are engravings, watercolours, sketches and drawings by John Constable.

The curators juxtaposed many of these with works by the landscape painters who inspired him, including Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Claude Lorrain.

A selection of prints produced during the last ten years of Constable’s life, as well as prints from his very comprehensive personal art collection are also on show.

The V&A is the leading centre for the study of John Constable’s work. The museum is home to an extremely important collection which includes three easel paintings, 92 oil sketches, 297 drawings and watercolours, plus three sketchbooks, most of which were part of a gift to the museum in 1888 by the artist’s daughter Isabel.

The exhibition addresses questions such as: where did John Constable’s inspiration come from? What techniques did he favour, and what is his lasting legacy?

John Constable. Landscape with a Kiln (c.1821-2).

John Constable’s Landscape with a Kiln (c.1821-2). Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

John Constable Owned a Very Impression Collection

Ana Debenedetti, Assistant Curator, spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts about Constable’s collection:
He had an extensive art collection, about 3,000 works, mainly prints and inexpensive because he couldn’t afford to buy highly priced items. In terms of drawings, he didn’t really go for Old Master drawings which are mainly figurative, but more for British Landscape artists such as Robert Wilson and Alexander Cozens, so he had a few of these.

“Mainly, what he really liked was the masters of the past, Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain, Rousseau, Poussin. All these people informed his art, and he used the etchings as a visual database that he would rework, maybe unconsciously, while doing his own compositions. Because much of the collection was sold just after his death we were able to match up and reconstruct part of the collection.

Constable Learned from the Old Masters Throughout his Career

All artists learn by copying the Old Masters. In the early days, and throughout his career, Constable studied and made very exact copies of Old Masters, referring to them “as a facsimile…a more lasting remembrance.″

Drawings and etchings by Herman van Swanevelt and Alexander Cozens, as well as Claude’s Landscape with a Goatherd and Goats (c. 1636-7) and Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmills near Haarlem (c. 1650-52) hang alongside the copies made by Constable.

There was a huge market for these copies and they sold well.

The V&A is the Leading Research Centre on Constable

John Constable. Branch Hill Pond: Hampstead (c.1821-22).

John Constable’s Branch Hill Pond: Hampstead (c.1821-22). Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Research into Constable’s work continues at the V&A. Recently, conservators made an unexpected discovery: a hitherto unknown work was found beneath a lining canvas on the reverse of Branch Hill Pond; Hampstead (c.1821-22). X-radiography had shown another painting but researchers thought this was merely another scene painted over by Constable.
The lining had become loose so conservators removed it to discover a new oil sketch on the back of the painting. Both front and back views are on show in a specially designed display case. The new oil sketch is upside-down because the artist simply flicked over the page and drew on the other side.
Mark Evans, curator and Head of Paintings at the V&A, spoke to Decoded Arts about the V&A’s research into Constable:
Mark Evans: ″This exhibition exemplifies the most recent research we’ve been carrying out. The things in this exhibition that I think are almost completely new are the work we’ve done on Constable’s collection. Another thing would be the role of copying in Constable’s practice, and then generally, there is how the masters stood behind Constable in what he did and how, ultimately, Constable himself joined the masters.″
Decoded Arts: ″Do you have a favourite Constable that you would like to take away with you today? Which one would it be, and why?″

John Constable. Boat Building Near Flatford Mill (1818. Image Frances Spiegel with permission from V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

John Constable’s Boat Building Near Flatford Mill (1818). Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Mark Evans: ″It would be Boat-Building Near Flatford Mill, which we are led to understand was painted entirely en plein air. It’s not Constable’s greatest, or his most famous picture by any means, but I think it represents him looking back at Claude, trying to do Claude again from nature. 
“He then moves on to the six-foot pictures. The six-footers were meant to hang in the Royal Academy or the National Gallery. They weren’t meant to hang in a terraced house in London, but Boat-Building would do nicely.″ 
Nowhere was Constable happier than when working outdoors in the English countryside, sketching directly from nature.
In the 1820s he produced a series of highly expressive oil sketches, spontaneous recordings from nature.

In this sketch book, we see his preliminary thumbnail sketch of Boat Building near Flatford Mill that was subsequently worked up into the painting that Mark Evans liked.
The exhibition looks at how Constable transferred the freshness of his sketches into his exhibition paintings.

John Constable. Boat-building Near Flatford Mill. (1814). Image Frances Spiegel with permission from V&A Museum. All rights reserved.

A preliminary sketch of John Constable’s Boat-Building Near Flatford Mill (1814). Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

John Constable:A Lasting Legacy

In the last ten years of his life, Constable worked closely with engraver David Lucas on a series of mezzotints that would guarantee his artistic legacy and the continued study of his works. The last gallery shows an important group of these prints together with Constable’s original oil sketches.

John Constable: “Modest and Discreet, Sensitive”

In Great Painters,Patricia Fride-Carrassat describes Constable as ″modest and discreet, sensitive and persevering in his work″ and, personally, I think it is this sensitivity that makes Constable’s work so memorable.
Constable: The Making of a Master is on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 20th September 2014 to 11th January 2015.

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