Constable at the V&A

Last month I was given the most wonderful treat. I started my morning in the V&A picture rooms, looking at the Turners and Constables in the Sheepshank Bequest. How his descendants must hate his philanthropy; there are hundreds of millions of pounds worth of paintings hanging there.

Then I moved on to the Isabel Constable Bequest. Isabel was the last surviving child of John Constable and in September 1888 gifted the residual contents of her father’s studio to the Museum. There are 395 oil paintings, sketches, drawings, watercolours and sketchbooks in the bequest, of which a mere twenty odd were on view.

However, I had the good fortune to be taken behind the scenes to the secure lock-up, where the others are stored, by Emily Knight, daughter of my old friend Richard Knight (ex-head of Old Masters at Christie’s, London), who curates these treasures for the Museum.

I am particularly interested in Constable’s oil sketches, most of which were painted out of doors and many inscribed with a specific date and time of day, revealing much about his working practices. Here I was, backstage, taking them off the racks and holding them in my hands for a closer look. I have done this sort of thing before, so they were perfectly safe! Nevertheless, to be holding such precious objects in my hands was a great privilege. Sketches by constable can make seven figure sums these days.

Oil sketches were not always so precious, well not in commercial terms anyway. Constable never sold any, but he had been sketching in oil from around 1802, for example “Dedham Vale: Evening” when he was 27 and was particularly active from 1808 onwards. In his lifetime they were not considered independent works of art, by John Constable or any of his contemporaries, but formed a database of scenes he felt worthy of recording, which might be used as inspiration for large easel pictures in the future. He was an inveterate recorder of things around him and travelled with a large and small sketchbook and pencil everywhere he went, even on honeymoon! He is famous for saying that he never saw an ugly thing in nature and no man has ever devoted his life to portraying the landscape of his childhood with as much passion and brilliance as John Constable did. Indeed, it is the brilliance of these vivacious and spontaneous oil sketches dashed off on card, paper, strips of canvas, wood, or whatever came to hand, that chimes so well with modern taste. When trying to catch the play of light, as a rainstorm passes over the sea, as in “Weymouth Bay” of 1816, Constable does not have time to conform to the painting style of his own age, as a result of which, his oil sketches are timeless.

A selection of these dynamic little paintings is about to leave for an exhibition in Romania and then on to further venues in Eastern Europe. I was glad to have the chance to see them before they go and wish them bon voyage.

Posted in Art and Sculpture, David Dallas News, News.

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