Constable and Turner. Two great rivals and the two great masters of Victorian British art are currently enjoying massive exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate, respectively.
If Turner’s best works are of stormy seas, then Constable’s are images of the English countryside. His masterpieces are of the hills and vales of the country, the fields around Salisbury Cathedral, a horse and cart being pulled through the stream, a horse prancing as it crosses a canal, a field of wheat. I have often thought that I preferred Constable’s small sketches for his oils more than the finished works, and this magnificent show at the V&A demonstrates exactly why. The immediacy and energy in his sketches doesn’t always translate into the huge canvasses that have established him as one of the great British artists.
The V&A have done him proud in this incredible collection, Constable, the Making of a Master (until 11 Jan) by placing his finished work alongside all its preparatory sketches. So not only are icons such as The Hay Wain, Salisbury Cathedral and The Leaping Horse on show, but their full-scale oil sketch versions, as well as countless much tinier images that built up to the finished picture. We see a postcard-sized pencil sketch or a small oil in which a house or a horse is established that will become part of a bigger whole. And not only Constable’s own work is here, but those of earlier masters whom he admired and copied, as well as prints he purchased and exquisite mezzotints more atmospheric than the originals. In fact, although it emphasises the oil sketches, this is probably the most comprehensive overview of the artist one will ever get to see.
And in that whole, it is the tiniest of gems that sparkle brightest. Yes, you may see his six-foot tall paintings in London’s great galleries, but it is not often you get to delight in the intensity and vigour of some of the littlest canvasses. There are cloudscapes that are the result of keen observation, brooding skies and sweeping rain, languid pastoral scenes executed at speed in the outdoors with such clarity that with just a few daubs of colour we sense the wind blowing, or smell the newly cut hay. My favourites are the Branch Hill series, which Constable painted from his country escape in Hampstead and capture the same natural contours one can still enjoy from the Heath. No wonder he is so well loved an artist.