‘Late Constable’ was the not-very-exciting title of an exhibition at the Royal Academy that revolutionised my view of Constable’s painting – and I could even add my way of looking at landscape. A number of the artist’s most famous paintings were there, the Haywain, the Leaping Horse, his view of Dedham Vale. Several were accompanied by his preliminary sketches; even full-size ‘six-footer’ first versions. It was comparing the two, or several versions, that compelled me to open my eyes, clean my specs, and concentrate on little details as well as the whole composition. The extraordinary value of the exhibition was that there were no ropes. You could put your face inches from the painting – and see far more than the customary viewing allows.
Constable was a master of mood. He painted atmosphere. Hadleigh Castle, a ruin by the Thames estuary, in his preliminary version is dismal, threatening, under a lowering stormy sky, the river in an angry mood. Next to it hung what were presumably the artist’s second thoughts; the same crumbling tower, but with catches of light as well as shade, a glimpse of a green meadow through an arch, a hint of sun from behind a cloud. And more than one spot of red.
I began to understand, dwelling on each painting in detail, how Constable must have gone over each one at the last minute with a fine brush dipped in red paint. A lock-worker’s waistcoat is about the largest area of red he allows himself. There is a story of how he and Turner tried to upstage each other at an Academy vernissage by adding an eye-catcher of red; one of them a buoy in the choppy sea.
In some paintings, the red touch is as unobtrusive as, for example, the tongue of a panting dog. In the Cornfield it is the waistcoat of the little boy lying down to drink out of a pond. The excitement of being so close to the paintings was to see how precisely, in a painting of a wide landscape, Constable zoomed in on minute details. You can read the body language of figures in the distance, mere specks of black a millimetre high. The artist who could use a broad brush or his palette knife to depict a storm remained in total control of every inch of his canvas.