RA Magazine Autumn 2012
Issue Number: 116
Simon Wilson on the national importance of Constable's 'The Lock'
As a rare Constable is sold in London, Simon Wilson argues for its national importance and finds links with a Van Gogh in the ‘Symbolist Landscape’ exhibition in Edinburgh
John Constable RA, 'The Lock'. oil on canvas. Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012 The sale at Christie’s in London in July of Constable’s 1824 masterpiece The Lock – which had been controversially consigned from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid – raises acute questions both of national heritage and of Constable’s place in the history of art.
I am never sure how widely understood is Constable’s almost total lack of recognition in Britain in his lifetime. Constable was only one year younger than Turner, yet the latter was elected a full RA in 1802, at the age of 27, while Constable had to wait over a quarter of a century longer, until 1829, until he was elected, grudgingly, by a single vote.
Constable’s failure, exemplified by the RA’s long refusal to acknowledge him, shows how incomprehensible his art was. This may seem an odd statement, when The Hay Wain has become one of the best-loved icons of British art, yet it failed to sell at the RA Summer Exhibition of 1821.
The Lock is one of its companions in the series of large canvases, the so-called ‘six-footers’, of rural Suffolk subjects that Constable painted and sent to the RA in the early 1820s and on which he pinned his reputation. These paintings challenged the whole notion of High Art that then dominated the academies of Europe. High Art consisted of ‘History’ – painting or sculpture of scenes from mythology, history or the Bible. Turner was elected an RA on the basis of a string of dramatic History subjects he sent to the Academy in the late 1790s and early 1800s.
Constable simply painted the undramatic Suffolk scene with a few peasants here and there. This would have been acceptable had he made the pictures ingratiatingly decorative or anecdotal. However he insisted on painting on such a scale and with such a grandeur of conception that they demanded to be considered at the highest level. Yet the viewer was precluded from doing so by their very subject matter, and particularly by their extreme naturalism, based on systematic open-air study. This compounded the already acute confusion of an audience that expected nature in art to be at least tidied up, poeticised, romanticised, given a golden glow.
Unappreciated in Britain, Constable found fame in France, where the still unsold Hay Wain was awarded a gold medal in Paris at the Salon of 1824 and sold to a French dealer, together with another of the six-footers. He entered the bloodstream of French art and the Suffolk paintings are direct forerunners of Impressionism. There are six of them, of which, sadly, only three remain in Britain – The Leaping Horse (1825) at the RA and The Hay Wain and Stratford Mill (1820) at the National Gallery. Apart from The Lock, the remaining two are in collections in the US from which they can never be lent.
Ironically, The Lock was in the UK until as recently as 1990, when it was sold at Sotheby’s for £10.8 million and, amazingly, allowed to leave the country. Yet it is alone in the Suffolk series, both in its upright format which gives it a peculiar monumentality, and in the exceptional prominence given to the figure of the man wrestling with the sluice gate – a uniquely powerful expression of Constable’s particular vision of man in landscape. Added to the RA and NG works, it would make a sensational group, a stunning manifestation of a rare and precise moment when Britain was a world innovator in art.
Not the least fascinating aspect of the history of landscape painting in the nineteenth century is the way in which painters from Constable to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists moved from an initial pure naturalism towards imbuing their work with types of poetic feeling and even subject matter that they had earlier rigorously excluded. This process was part of the movement known as Symbolism, which however, had primarily focused on figure subjects.
Now, a ground-breaking exhibition, ‘Symbolist Landscape’, at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, shows the full extent of the phenomenon in landscape art, with an array of fascinating paintings, often exotic or dreamlike, ranging from Van Gogh, to Klimt, to Kandinsky. It includes Van Gogh’s The Sower (see pop-up gallery below), which has strong echoes of The Lock. This is not as ridiculous as it may seem – we know from his letters that Van Gogh admired Constable’s work. Both paintings feature a prominent figure acting in the landscape, and a dominating tree treated in such a way as also to become an actor in the unfolding drama, and a sky equally portentous.
Both figures are oddly anonymous, and both have Old Master sources. Van Gogh’s comes from J.F. Millet, the great French painter of rural life. More intriguingly, Constable’s appears to me to be based on Tarquin in the ravishing but harrowing Titian, from 1571, of the rape of Lucretia, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. This again is not as far-fetched a suggestion as it may seem. The Constable scholar Anne Lyles has recently revealed the extent of his admiration for Titian. In The Lock, Constable’s man uses his knee in the struggle to open the sluice gate just as Titian’s uses his in the struggle with the doomed Lucretia.
The Lock eventually sold for £22.4m (below its upper estimate of £25m). Its sale caused Sir Norman Rosenthal (former Exhibitions Secretary of the RA) to resign from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum’s board. In a scathing letter he called the sale a ‘moral shame’ that showed ‘little or no understanding of art history or of genuine artistic importance’.
The sliver of good news is that the buyer may well be British. This would at least offer the possibility in the longer term of some deal to ensure that this hugely important British painting belongs, as it should, to the nation.
• Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910,
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, until 14 Oct.
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