04 January 2014
Art for Christmas (11), ‘Salisbury Cathedral
from the Meadows’ by John Constable
My choice of a work of Art for Christmas is Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable. This large masterpiece was painted in oil on canvas in 1831 and measures 151.8 x 189.9 cm. It has been on display for many years in the National Gallery, London, on loan from a private collection, and was bought by the Tate last year for £23.1 million.
Constable (1776-1837) is best-known for his landscapes, including The Hay Wain (1821), which are mostly of the Suffolk countryside, where he was born and lived. He was born in East Bergholt, and was largely self-taught. Like Thomas Gainsborough, Constable was influenced by Dutch artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Peter Paul Rubens.
However, the realism and vitality of his work make him highly original. “I should paint my own places best,” he wrote to his friend John Fisher in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling.”
In 1816, when he was 40, he married his childhood friend Maria Bicknell, whose grandfather, the Revd Dr Durand Rhudde, was the Rector of East Bergholt. They were married in Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher (1748-1825), officiating, and spent their honeymoon in Fisher’s house in Salisbury and in Osmington Vicarage with John and Mary Fisher.
Constable died on 31 March 1837 and was buried in the graveyard of Saint John-at-Hampstead with his wife Maria, who died in 1828.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was on loan to the National Gallery for 30 years, and was at risk of being sold abroad before it was bought last year. “It’s one of the quintessential images of 19th century British art and it’s worth every penny,” Tate Britain’s Director, Sir Nicholas Serota, told the BBC.
“This is one of Constable’s most important paintings,” he said. “He regarded it as one of his masterpieces and always wanted it to be in the national collection.”
The BBC Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, said: “It is arguably the most accomplished work by one of the finest, most exciting painters of the Romantic period.” Constable’s The Lock became one of the most expensive British paintings ever sold when it fetched £22.4 million at auction in July 2012.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is one of a series of monumental six-foot canvases painted by Constable, who reserved this scale for his finest compositions. It was painted shortly after his wife’s death, and depicts Salisbury Cathedral under a stormy sky and a striking rainbow viewed from across the River Avon.
Constable first exhibited the painting at the Royal Academy in 1831 and later in a regional exhibition in Birmingham, but he continued working on it in 1833 and 1834.
When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, it was accompanied by a quotation from James Thomson’s poem Summer, which refers to a “danger past” before describing how “a glittering robe of joy … invests the fields and nature smiles revived.”
Constable first visited Salisbury in 1811 at the invitation of Bishop John Fisher. The bishop later invited him to paint Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Gardens, and that painting in is now in the Frick Collection in New York.
Constable visited Salisbury many more times in course of the years that followed, producing over 300 paintings and watercolours of the area. In Salisbury, he also formed a close friendship with the bishop’s nephew, John Fisher, and he turned to Fisher after the great shock of his wife’s death in the autumn of 1828. These events provide keys to interpreting this morning’s painting.
The scene depicts Salisbury Cathedral seen from across the River Avon. The vantage point was well-considered, and for many months, Constable produced sketches from different viewpoints as he prepared for the final work.
The painting is a composite construction based on these sketches, with topographical features artfully put into place, such as Leadenhall, where the rainbow ends and where John Fisher lived, and the Church of Saint Thomas to the left. Neither of these is visible from this viewpoint.
The painting has an extraordinary vitality, with closely observed topography and markers such as the framing foliage and the three neatly-placed cows. However, the rainbow provides the most noticeable feature from nature, softening the horizon and creating rich echoes with the curve of the river, and uniting the different elements in the painting. It is surprising, then, that X-rays reveal the rainbow was an afterthought for Constable.
A year after the painting was exhibited, his friend John Fisher died at the age of 44.
It is interesting that while Constable was putting his finishing touches to this painting, the architect AWN Pugin moved to Salisbury after his second marriage in 1833, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1835 while living there, and he continued to live there until 1837.
Pugin, who first visited Salisbury Cathedral as a 13-year-old, saw it as “both an inspiration and an agony,” and regarded it as “the supreme work” of church architecture and the beau idéal if Early English Gothic. Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, Co Kerry, is Pugin’s homage to Salisbury Cathedral.
Constable was a devout Anglican, and this painting has been interpreted as a metaphor for pressure felt by the Church of England from its waning political importance in the early 19th century.
At the time Constable was working on this painting, the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, and others were seen as pulling down the steeple of the church. The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 allowed Roman Catholics to sit in Parliament, and Fisher and Constable who saw this as an assault on the fabric of the establishment.
In 1833, John Keble preached his Assize Sermon in Oxford on “national apostasy,” criticising state interference in the affairs of the Church, denouncing the nation for turning away from God, and for regarding the Church as a mere institution of society, rather than as the prophetic voice of God.
These circumstances may explain why Constable painted the sky bearing down ominously on a masterpiece of English church architecture, representing the Church of England.
Other critics attribute political meanings to this painting, including the clash of industrialisation and nature represented through the clash of elements.
But was Constable was a religiously intolerant reactionary who opposed reform and rights for minorities? And why have I chosen this painting to contemplate as we come towards the end of the Christmas season?
The painting can be seen as a personal statement of Constable’s turbulent emotions and his changing states of mind. The sky reflects this turbulence and shows his emotional state of being; but the rainbow is a symbol of hope after a storm.
Some of the symbols we can see in this painting include: a grave marker, as a symbol of death; an ash tree as a symbol of life; the church as a symbol of faith and resurrection; and the rainbow as a symbol of renewed optimism.
Constable worried about the future of the Church of England. So Salisbury Cathedral is not allowed to dominate this painting in a smug, triumphant way. The largest form confronting us is the ancient tree on the left, and it seems shaken by the impact of the storm. It may even be in danger of falling into the darkness beyond, where a small church tower and houses look threatened by the black sky.
The dog isolated in the muddy foreground stares back at this tree, as if to wonder where the storm will strike next. Lightning flashes to the left of the cathedral spire, and the man in the wooden cart looks hunched, as if bracing himself for another apocalyptic storm.
The three horses pulling his cart through the water appear burdened by their task. Directly behind the cart, a tiny cottage is being smothered by a tangle of foliage growing over its vulnerable white wall and orange roof. The withered stump of a willow on the far right is perilously close to the water’s edge.
But Constable did not sink into despair about the future of the Church. In a series of lectures on the history of landscape painting in 1834, he referred in particular to this painting, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, and said: “I mean more than the rainbow itself, I mean dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun.”
Tomorrow: ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds,’ by El Greco.