Constable’s arresting images of the timeless Suffolk countryside
- Credit: Archant
CONSTABLE is the man who captured the essence of Suffolk. His timeless landscapes, dominated by big, brooding skies and scenes of everyday life, managed to immortalise Suffolk’s character.
Today we still refer to the Dedham Vale, the area around Flatford where he grew up and spent much of his early life, as Constable Country.
John Constable has, quite rightly, long been regarded as an artistic icon, but a new exhibition, which opens today at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich, aims to give viewers a glimpse of the man behind the legend.
The mansion’s Wolsey Gallery is playing host to the largest collection of Constable paintings and drawings outside London. The exhibition will provide a permanent home for the combined collections from the Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service.
The pictures not only celebrate his famed landscapes but also reveal him as a skilled portrait painter, print-maker and illustrator.
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Sketches are combined with oils, etchings and watercolours in order to get an overall view of the talents of the country’s greatest artists.
John Constable was born in East Bergholt in June, 1776. His father, Golding Constable, was a wealthy corn merchant and owner of Flatford Mill and, later, Dedham Mill in Essex.
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John was expected to join his father in the business but he became increasingly absorbed by his art. After a brief period at a boarding school in Lavenham he was enrolled in a day school in Dedham. Constable worked in the corn business after leaving school, but his younger brother, Abram, eventually took over the running of the mills.
During his youth, he wandered all over the Dedham countryside, going out on drawing expeditions and filling sketchbook after sketchbook with views of the Suffolk countryside.
These working drawings kept him supplied with ideas and details to drop into his work for the rest of his life.
It is this love of Suffolk that the Christchurch Mansion exhibition celebrates.
Until the end of June, the Ipswich and Colchester collection will be bolstered by loans from the Victoria and Albert Museum, an anonymous private collector and items from the Constable family.
Art curator Emma Roodhouse said the idea behind the exhibition was to not only celebrate the life and work of a great artist but to give Constable some context.
Changing additional displays will allow the gallery staff to show works by artists that inspired Constable and, also, works by artists that Constable, himself, inspired.
Emma said the exhibition also includes three large oil landscapes by Sudbury-born Thomas Gainsborough, along with an etching of Landguard Fort, which illustrates some of the lessons Constable took from Gainsborough while also showing a different side of Gainsborough, who is more usually regarded as a portrait painter.
This close affiliation between Constable and Gainsborough is further reaffirmed by the inclusion of a series of portraits Constable produced of family and friends, as well as some early figure studies he completed on paper.
Emma said that the portraits have rarely been seen together and she believes this is the first time the figure drawings have been on public display.
“It is all about gaining an understanding of who Constable was, how he learned his art and how he developed.”
This is also helped by the rediscovery of a rare portrait of Constable in the Borough Council’s archives and by the inclusion of personal items such as his paint box, brushes and palette. “We also have on loan a lovely bronze horse, owned by Constable, but which was cast from a work from Gainsborough – so that again strengthens the link between the two men.”
The Constable family have also provided John Constable’s death mask, which corresponds closely with the newly-rediscovered portrait in the Ipswich archive rather more than the romanticised portraits on display at Tate Britain.
“One of the lovely things about pulling this exhibition together has been an opportunity to go through the stores and see exactly what is in there.
“The discovery of Constable’s portrait by his biographer is a classic case in point. I don’t think that’s been shown before. It was made by Constable’s first biographer and was signed by Constable, so he must have been happy with it.
“It would be wrong to say that the portrait was lost, because it was catalogued and on the database, but you don’t really know what you have got until you start pulling things out and looking at them.”
The exhibition also marks the reopening of the mansion’s Wolsey Gallery after a £500,000 refurbishment, fitting new air-conditioning, lighting and flooring improvements.
She said the new-look gallery in the heart of the mansion will provide a suitably impressive and atmospheric location to display an important part of not only Suffolk’s heritage but Britain’s cultural heritage.
“The new Ipswich permanent exhibition will house 12 oil paintings, with a further seven on temporary loan from the V&A, a further oil from a private collector and many, many works on paper, including the nudes which haven’t been really seen before.”
The permanent collection will be refreshed and renewed at regular intervals by loans from other collections and from other elements of the borough’s archive.
“I am already thinking of perhaps having a temporary Thomas Churchyard display as part of the exhibition in the near future – illustrating the effect that Constable had on the artists who came after him.”
Next year, she said, they hoped to have loans from The Tate and in 2015 they planned to link up for a series of events at Flatford.
Emma said they have worked hard to show the various sides of Constable’s artistic personality.
Examples of print-making by both Constable and Gainsborough revealed areas of both men’s work that the public rarely got a chance to see. “Constable did an English landscape series towards the end of his life which echoed prints Gainsborough had done earlier.”
Emma said that one of the highlights of the V&A loans was a preparatory sketch of the Kitchen Gardens which perfectly complemented two paintings in the borough’s collection. The paintings and drawings were of his father’s kitchen gardens, looking out of the house and beyond, onto the countryside that straddled the Suffolk/Essex border.
“For me, one of the big things in this exhibition was to reunite the preparatory drawing with the finished works. These haven’t been seen together in Suffolk since they were painted, so you can get an idea of how he worked.
“Also, the great thing is that the kitchen garden sketch, although it is part of the V&A collection, wasn’t on show until we borrowed it, so this is quite special.
“I love the fact that because the drawing has a panoramic view you get elements of both paintings in that original pencil sketch.” She said the inclusion of artefacts helped to make Constable a real man, rather than a lofty artistic icon.
“In addition to his paint box, we have got his wife, Maria’s, wedding ring and a piece of wood from his father’s house, where, as a young boy, he demonstrated his artistic talents by carving a picture of a post-mill into the wood.
“These items donated by the family make Constable into a real person rather than a lofty artistic icon.”
Emma said: “It’s a major exhibition which demonstrates what an important role Suffolk plays in our artistic heritage, and something to be celebrated in this day and age is that admission to this wonderful exhibition is free.”