During the eighteenth century, the new genre of landscape painting developed in Britain. Although to a degree introduced by Richard Wilson, who had trained in plein air techniques in the Roman Campagna, it developed in relative isolation and attracted its own theories. British collectors had acquired fine examples of landscape paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, and Rubens had painted for the King of England, but the pioneers of British landscape painting pursued a more independent course.
One great debate, of particular relevance to composition, was the need for realistic depiction of the landscape in front of the artist. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy and primarily a portrait painter, laid out his influential views in letters published in 1759 which grew into his Discourses. He rejected simple imitation of the motif: “the usual and most dangerous error is on the side of minuteness; and therefore I think caution most necessary where most have failed. The general idea constitutes real excellence. All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be sacrificed without mercy to the greater.” (Reynolds’ Discourse delivered to Students of the Royal Academy on 10 December 1771.)
Evidence from the greatest British landscape painter prior to the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), is equivocal.
In what was to become one of John Constable’s favourite paintings, Gainsborough’s Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk from 1748, the artist gives the impression of depicting the countryside around his home quite faithfully. Its figures are pure staffage rather than an attempt at narrative, and it ignores van Mander’s recommendations, looking entirely natural rather than composed in any other way. Unlike most of the earlier landscape I have shown in this series, there’s no coherent attempt to lead the eye in any single direction, although the meandering road does lead into the distance, and a small gap in the canopy with a church. I apologise for the poor quality of this image.
Only a year or two after that, Gainsborough returned to a more classical approach in this Wooded Landscape with a Cottage and Shepherd (1748-50). This follows the recommendations of van Mander more obviously, with a single dominant tree on the right, whose wonderfully gnarled and lichen-encrusted bark threatens to subsume the shepherd at its foot. Its foliage appears to have become more transparent over time, though. The rhythm in canopies and clouds is more complex, and the contrast between the canopy at the right and the form of the patch of blue sky is intriguing. The view itself, though, isn’t clearly linked to a single location and is probably an idealised composite.
It was against this background that John Constable (1776–1837) emerged. Through his long friendship with the collector John Beaumont, Constable had access to paintings by those who influenced him, including Claude Lorrain, Rubens, van Ruisdael, and Gainsborough. He exhibited at the Royal Academy by 1803, and toured the British coast and Lake District, sketching and painting avidly. Determined to be a landscape painter in an era when landscapes were expected to be dramatic, romantic, and all ‘Salvatore Rosa’, he paid the bills from commissioned portraiture work. He established a routine of portrait-painting in London during the winter, and landscapes back in Suffolk in the summer.
Constable also wrote and taught about landscape painting, and made it clear that he too followed Reynolds as far as realism was concerned. He taught in his second discourse at the Royal Institution on 2 June 1836: “The works of the truly great men who have shone in art were not mere copies of the productions of Nature, which can never be more than servile imitations. Yet, it should be remembered that the study of Nature in her most minute details is indispensable, and can never be made in vain.” (John Constable’s Discourses, ed. RB Beckett, Suffolk Records Society, 1970, p. 57.)
Throughout his career, Constable used similar working methods. He’d prepare a series of sketches and studies in front of suitable motifs, in this case using the traditional medium of black and white chalk on paper.
He also made a great many plein air sketches in oils, which he used extensively for ‘skying’ particularly around Hampstead Heath near London, and for remarkable studies of trees, such as this ash, seen in its autumn colours. Despite the challenges posed by his medium, he has taken the time to construct the tree anatomically, and to detail its foliage.
His finished paintings show real locations, many in the ‘Constable country’ of Suffolk, England, where you can see the modern remains of Dedham Lock and Mill, which he painted in 1820. However, true to his teaching, each is carefully recomposed with details, many of which aren’t faithful to that view.
The overall composition is true to van Mander. The mast and sail of a barge at the left and the stand of trees form repoussoir to lead the eye steadily deeper into the distance, where in the centre of the canvas is a church tower.
Constable’s oil sketches are amazingly ‘modern’ in appearance, and still contain individual figures in among the squiggles and blobs of paint, in this case making up his sketch of Fen Lane, East Bergholt which he painted in about 1811.
It wasn’t until fifteen years later that Constable painted the finished landscape based on that oil sketch: The Cornfield (1826) is a view down the same Fen Lane in East Bergholt. Comparison of the two paintings may give some idea as to how extensive Constable’s departures from reality can become.
Constable’s major works are dominated by a series of large landscapes painted in the studio, known as his ‘six-footers’ from their dimensions. Among these and their relatives are:
- Flatford Mill (1816-7) (precursor),
- The White Horse (1819),
- Stratford Mill (1820),
- The Hay Wain (1821),
- A View on the Stour near Dedham (1822),
- The Lock (1824),
- The Leaping Horse (1825),
- Hadleigh Castle (1829),
- Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831),
- The Opening of Waterloo Bridge seen from Whitehall Stairs, June 18th 1817 (1832).
This early sketch for Constable’s most famous work The Haywain (c 1820) is as rich in figures, and the wagon itself, as the finished painting. Its composition also remains surprisingly similar, and resembles the left half of a painting conforming to the van Mander tradition.
Constable worked this up through a series of progressively larger oil studies to reach his finished Hay Wain (1821). This divides into two halves, with the dark and closed building and trees at the left, while the right is light, open and dominated by the cumulus clouds of a fine day. The horizon on the right is well below half way, with the wagon in the middle of the foreground. By contemporary standards, this was most unconventional, and was probably responsible in part for the painting’s poor reception when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy.
This early sketch of Hadleigh Castle (1828-29) already contains some surprisingly detailed passages: at the far left, a shepherd, his black dog by his side, with a small flock of sheep, which are grazing near the ruined tower. There’s a brown and white blob on the seaward slope, probably a cow grazing there. Wheeling in wrinkles of impasto above the tower are a few birds, which resemble small runnels of liquid metal like solder.
By the finished work, the splendid Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames – Morning after a Stormy Night (1829), the basic disposition of those figures has changed little, but Constable has changed each to suit his image. The shepherd, still carrying his long crook, is separated from his dog, and has lost his sheep, which have become scattered rocks. The single cow on the sloping grass has gained a couple of friends, and a cowherd. Beyond them are another couple of tiny specks of figures, and there are more by the wood in the lower right corner.
His overall composition has changed little from the oil sketch. This is another markedly asymmetric view, which divides into halves, the left dominated by the ruined towers, and the right by the towering clouds and the sheen of the Thames estuary below.
Today, Constable is usually considered to be more conservative than his contemporary JMW Turner. However, in terms of composition at least, Constable was probably the more revolutionary in avoiding rigorous realism and departing from van Mander’s compositional tradition. Next week, I’ll look at his great rival, Turner.