Constable exhibition finds home at Gainsborough’s House
- Credit: Mark Westley
A rare collection of Constable drawings, prints and paintings from the artists family has gone on long term loan to Gainsborough’s House and can be seen alongside work by Constable’s own inspiration Thomas Gainsborough.
The collection includes drawings taken from Constable’s working notebook, watercolour and oil sketches and an etching of Constable’s famed Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows which served as an artist’s proof. Constable made corrections and additions to the print with his own hand which makes it unique.
Other highlights include pencil drawings of a woman believed to be John Constable’s wife Maria and a drawing of his daughter Emily sat with her chin resting on the arm of an oversized chair. Among the memorabilia contained in the show are Constable’s portable paintbox, complete with brushes and glass phials for mixing pigments, and Maria’s delicate, gold wedding ring.
Louisa Brouwer, Keeper of Art & Place at Gainsborough’s House, said that the items in the exhibition were part of a larger collection owned by Constable’s descendents. “Although objects from this important collection have been leant to various exhibitions over the years, they have never before been loaned to a museum in their entirety.”
She said that they planned to have a show which evolved over time so there would always be something new to see.
“We love the Salisbury Cathedral etching because we know that Constable actually worked on this and touched it with his own hands. Of course, with the new research about the believed addition of the rainbow, it makes this an incredibly topical item.
“Usually engravers did their own thing but clearly Constable worked very closely with his print makers and applied areas of white to the printers proof which highlighted areas he wanted to emphasise. This was clearly a collaborative exercise and makes this quite special.
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“Constable applied pencil, chalk and grey wash to get the tones he wanted in the finished print.”
She added that it was fitting that the family’s collection should be displayed at the home of his great hero Gainsborough.
Born in East Bergholt, not far from Sudbury, Constable was a great admirer of his Suffolk compatriot Thomas Gainsborough, and indeed modelled much of his early work as a landscape painter on Gainsborough’s example. Examples of some of Constable’s early drawings which reveal the influence of Gainsborough’s style are on display in the exhibition, shown alongside sketches of shipping, classical studies from plaster casts and nude drawings from various life models which Constable made when a student at the Royal Academy.
Complementing these will be examples of Constable’s later landscape drawings and watercolours which show his more mature style – such as View of London from Hampstead, c. 1830, with its magnificently expressive sky.
It is entirely possible that the Hampstead watercolour was created using the portable paint box which forms the centrepiece of the family heirloom element of the display. The exhibition also has Constable’s elaborate graduation certificate from the Royal Academy.
This exhibition was curated by art historian Anne Lyles, a world authority on John Constable, and the display shows the shared links between Gainsborough and Constable.
Louisa Brouwer said that in many of Constable’s early works, Gainsborough’s influence is clearly visible and they both enjoyed a love of the Suffolk countryside and its characteristic big skies.
“As exciting as the drawings and art works are, what makes this exhibition really special are the glimpses at the man and his family life. We have Maria’s wedding ring which is incredibly delicate, we have a baby rattle which obviously was used to entertain his young children and we have two locks of Constable’s hair when he himself was a young child – along with two ivory tokens which would have gained him admittance to art lectures at the Royal Academy.
“It’s the mix of personal and professional and the fact that these pieces have not been on public view before and have been part of the Constable Family Collection which make them so special.
“Looking at the drawings of the countryside and the ships, the beautiful sketches of family members gives you an intimate introduction to Constable’s world.
“I love the fact that the paintbox still contains his brushes and bottles of dry pigment. The labels on the phials actually give the ingredients required to make the colours. This is a working artist’s tool-kit.”
She said that Gainsborough’s House was honoured that they were chosen to host such an important display. “The family wanted the collection to be viewed by more people and enjoyed by people who loved art as much as they did. Anne Lyles brought us together and the setting at Gainsborough’s House emphasises that blurring of the line between domesticity and a professional world.
“The collection has a domestic feel because families tend to keep things which are different from a collector or a museum and the setting here echoes that feel.
“People obviously enjoy looking at the finished works but here we get to peak behind the scenes and look at the work that went into those famed paintings. We get to see pages from his work books and notebooks, we get to see quick drawings of family members and friends, views he encountered on his travels and just set down there and then as he saw them.”
For Mark Bills, director of Gainsborough’s House, the loan of the Constable Family Collection couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment.
“It is so important for Gainsborough’s House that the Constable family has loaned to us their treasured collection of John Constable paintings, drawing and artefacts. The exhibition represents the start of our plan to give a permanent home to John Constable and other nationally significant Suffolk artists alongside Thomas Gainsborough. Gainsborough was an enormous influence upon Constable and to have this exhibition in Gainsborough’s House is a real delight and I would encourage visitors to come and explore the life of this extraordinary artist.
“It’s a major coup for us and the region. The exhibition Constable at Gainsborough’s House will build on our ongoing £7.5 million Heritage Lottery Fund renovation, which aims to create a national centre and one of the region’s leading heritage museums and galleries.”
The exhibition, in its current configuration, will be on display until June 11 before additional archival material from the same collection, will arrive at Gainsborough’s House on long-term loan.