When you think of John Constable your mind might wander to Suffolk fields and sleepy bays, or images of Hampstead Heath when it truly was a heath surrounded by rolling countryside: the East Anglian native has always been Britain’s patron painter of bucolic landscapes. Few, however, are likely to associate the 19th century artist with the beaches of Brighton – a state a new exhibition is hoping to redress.
Opening in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery this week is Constable and Brighton, a ground-breaking exhibition displaying the work of John Constable during his four year stay in the seaside city between 1824 and 1828. The display collects over 60 pieces from the artist’s extended visit, gathering sketches, drawings and paintings of the local area. Brought together by local artist Peter Harrap, researcher Shan Lancaster and Constable expert Anne Lyles, the assembled works mark the first attempt to recognise Constable’s time in the city as a distinctive period within the painter’s career – an era marked by expression and romanticism.
Constable came to the coastal resort in 1824 on account of his wife Maria. Having suffered from tuberculosis since 1819, Maria’s illness began to worsen in the early 1820s and her devoted husband decided to move the whole family to Brighton: the south sea air, it was hoped, might sooth the encroaching malady. The group crammed into a small provincial apartment (it is believed that the household’s hired cook may have even shared a bedroom with the recovering couple for a time) and the painter made regular business trips back to the galleries of London by coach – a commuter of yesteryear.
A Windmill near Brighton, 1824, John Constable. c. Tate London 2016
Between tending to his wife and travelling back north, Constable enjoyed roaming the countryside of the South Downs. Gifted with an ever itchy brush-hand, he took with him his paint box – a small wooden briefcase of blotchy colours (featured in the exhibition) – and stopped to make depictions of the scenery he encountered. Pausing for a few hours in one spot, the artist would set his easel, take in his subject and go to work; he would then pack up, move a kilometre down the road and start again. This creative dance continued for months on end, and Constable and Brighton lays out its galleries into the three main routes: west, north and east of the city.
A good forty years before Impressionism, painting outdoors was unheard of in Constable’s time. Like the artists that would go on to adopt this approach, Constable painted quickly and with suggestive brushstrokes. Gone was the uptight landscaper who measured out the tree-trunks and horse & carts of Suffolk with a ruler: during his stay the Brighton convert loosened up his shoulders and found a much more vibrant style.
The collected paintings of Constable and Brighton display an exhilarated artist. The brushwork flows fluidly and at times wildly. The clouds become a smooth daub on a clear day and an erratic, dark swipe for an approaching storm; the grass is nothing more than a series of sweeping green curves. Constable was intoxicated by the drama and emotion of these hastily composed artistic stops, so much so that when he was awarded the gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1824 – the highest accolade of the day – he declined to travel to accept the award, preferring to sit on his Sussex hilltops and soak up his romantic moments.
John Constable, Hove Beach, 1824-28. c. Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Recognition of this pivotal moment in the celebrated painter’s career has, in part, relied upon chance. Moving to Brighton in 2010, artist and curator Peter Harrap became neighbours with researcher Shan Lancaster. Falling into conversation, Lancaster mentioned that Constable had lived on the pair’s street – a nugget of information she herself had gleaned through casual gossip. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that Harrap’s house was the very same as 19th century artist. The duo set out to discover the extent of the Constable’s links to the city and unearthed a treasure trove of letters and paintings. Even after these breakthroughs any hope of an honorary exhibition was still far off. It took five years of “begging, borrowing and almost stealing” as Harrap put it, to collect the Brighton era pieces from the Tate, the Royal Academy, the British Museum and many more. Some works even had to be reattributed: a painting of rooftops, formerly thought to be of Camden was reassigned to the Brighton backstreets on account of the distinctive roof-tiling.
Finally collected, Constable and Brighton is a fitting testament to both the artist and the city. Fans of Constable can revel in this new chapter in the painter’s legacy, a daring and rather more rebellious side to the sometimes maligned icon; locals to Brighton can spot their favourite haunts depicted on the canvases of their adopted son. In recent years the eternal tussle between JMW Turner and Constable has swayed a little in favour of the Londoner – in no small part due to Mike Leigh’s recent film. This exhibition hints, however, that Turner wasn’t the only one with an eye for innovation and the Romantic: time to take another look at Constable.