Saturday, August 09, 2008

Above us only sky

click photo to enlarge
From the mid -eighteenth century, through painters like Richard Wilson (1713 - 1782), Thomas Gains- borough (1727 - 1788) and Alexander Cozens (1717 - 1786), English landscape painting found its feet. Yet, their art still shows that century's belief in man's superiority over nature, and the idea that it can and must be "improved". It was the group of artists who followed them - Thomas Girtin (1775-1802), John Crome (1768-1821), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and, pre-eminently, John Constable (1776-1837), who cast aside this mindset in pursuit of the natural world as they found it, and created "a prodigious flowering of landscape painting in England, unparalleled in any one country on the Continent."

Drawing his inspiration from Titian backgrounds, the work of Rubens and Dutch landscape painters, as well as the English artists of that earlier generation, Constable painted scenes from around his home in Suffolk. Cottages, barns, trees, ruins, waggons and horses - all were worthy subjects in his view. However, his interpretations were mediated by an English sensibility and depend for their power on his rendering of the changing English sky. Constable called the sky "the keynote" of a landscape painting. He gave much of his energy to capturing the fleeting beauty of clouds and light at different times of day and different seasons. The lessons he learned from his cloud studies were transferred into his major paintings. Constable's skies are suffused with the variations that come from weather that originates over the Atlantic, is moderated by passing above our small island, and is further changed by never being far from the influence of the sea. These qualities can be seen in paintings such as Weymouth Bay (1816), Brighton Beach with Colliers (1824), Hadleigh Castle (1829), The Valley Farm (1835), or Norham Castle (1835-40).

Today some people appreciate Constable's work for its depiction of an idyllic, English countryside that has either disappeared or changed, except for in a few corners of our land. But, whilst Constable was not insensitive to the beauty of the English landscape of his time, he simply painted what he saw. In 1820 it was a haywain by a farm and stream: if he had been painting today I'd like to think it would have been a bright red combine harvester passing over a field of ripe, yellow wheat! And, whilst Constable would not have recognised this piece of modern farm machinery, he most certainly would recognise and celebrate the wonderful clouds drifting over these flat, Lincolnshire Fenland fields.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 40mm (80mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/1600
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On