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Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape

Published 12 November 2012

Tracing the emergence of landscape painting as a distinct genre in its own right.

  • From the Winter 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    When David Hockney RA painted his vibrant plein air views of Yorkshire (seen in 2012 at the Royal Academy), he was building on a tradition of landscape painting that goes back to the later 18th century, and to the period when Turner and Constable delighted and shocked their viewers. As is so often the case in British life, the nature of this tradition has evolved through controversy and hard-won innovation, before eventually becoming established as something more orthodox – though that designation doesn’t necessarily make it tame. A new exhibition at the Royal Academy provides an opportunity to explore the genesis of this native landscape tradition, considered by many to be one of the most distinctive British contributions to world art.

  • John Constable RA, The Leaping Horse

    John Constable RA, The Leaping Horse, 1825.

    Oil on canvas. 142 x 187.3 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Given by Mrs Dawkins 1889. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • That the works on show come entirely from the Academy’s own collection is in itself remarkable, since at the time it was founded in the 1760s, landscape occupied a marginal, almost negligible position in the academic hierarchy of genres. At that stage the pinnacle of artistic aspirations, as advocated by the RA’s first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, took the form of narrative-driven history painting, in which morality or sentiment was invoked. By the exacting standards of history painting, with its emphasis on the ideal rather than the particular, landscape served no clear purpose.

    But against these odds, innovative artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Constable regularly presented their work in the Academy’s annual exhibitions, gradually forcing their peers to acknowledge the potential of landscape painting more fully. Nevertheless, landscape was not viewed as a means of gaining recognition or financial security. Indeed, even though he believed them to be his most important works, Gainsborough saw the production of his landscapes as an almost furtive activity, undertaken in spite of his increasing pre-eminence in the art world.

  • John Constable RA, Cloud Study

    John Constable RA, Cloud Study, 11 September 1821.

    Oil on paper laid on board. 24.1 x 29.9 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Given by Isabel Constable 1888. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: John Hammond.

  • In hindsight it is far too simplistic to conclude that the shift in attitudes to landscape that took place in the later 18th century was entirely due to the artists’ own endeavours. But artists like Gainsborough believed that landscape provided a vehicle for their ideas and emotions that was as worthy as any other genre. In his case, landscape became almost an abstraction of natural forms. Rather than working from specific places, he improvised from models made up of stones, glass and even broccoli to suggest something more universal.

    There is, perhaps, a sense in which the eventual ascent of landscape came about through a subversive campaign within the Academy, the underside of the overt aims of the institution. No one epitomises this more than Turner. Despite his fondness for the formal landscapes of the 17th century, especially those of Claude Lorrain, Turner did not limit himself to the framing patterns imposed by that type of landscape. Nor did he restrict his range. Whether as a recorder of brutal seas, bucolic glades or rain-soaked highlands, Turner demonstrated in the images of his Liber Studiorum that a landscape artist could infuse drama as well as a sense of place. This was a creed he instilled in his students through his lectures and by his own example. The RA is fortunate to possess one of the best sets of the Liber mezzotints, exquisitely bold impressions that have stimulated later Academicians, including Norman Ackroyd RA.

  • Thomas Gainsborough RA, Romantic Landscape

    Thomas Gainsborough RA, Romantic Landscape, c. 1783.

    Oil on canvas. 186.7 x 153.7 cm. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • Over the past 50 years, scholars have uncovered a variety of factors that shaped and informed the ways landscape artists approached their work. The metropolitan audience who admired and acquired these pictures from the Academy’s walls was clearly significant. During the early 19th century the number of visitors was steadily growing, encompassing individuals with very different political outlooks and social backgrounds. In the boom years after Waterloo, it was a patriotic audience sustained by the affluence of the newly wealthy mercantile class, who preferred contemporary art to Old Masters, and landscape to history painting.

    Just as vital was the influence of the scientific and humanistic ideas of the Enlightenment, reflecting the intellectual curiosity in this period about the natural world and its phenomena. A highlight of the RA’s collection of Constables are his studies of the sky, which grew directly from his knowledge of Luke Howard’s ground-breaking work on the classification of clouds. As far as Constable was concerned, without a deep understanding of these scientific principles, it was impossible to proceed as a landscape painter. Indeed, the studies made in the early 1820s proved to be the foundation for the dramatic skies of his most ambitious canvases over the following decade.

  • Thomas Gainsborough RA, 'Mountainous Wooded Landscape with Figures and Sheep' (Study for 'Romantic Landscape')

    Thomas Gainsborough RA, 'Mountainous Wooded Landscape with Figures and Sheep' (Study for 'Romantic Landscape'), c. 1783.

    Black and white chalk with black ink on faded blue laid paper. 21.4 x 17.6 cm.

  • Gainsborough’s processes are just as fascinating to observe closely, and this is something that the RA Collection can now present in detail as a result of the acquisition of the drawing, Study for Romantic Landscape (c.1783) that anticipates the wonderfully brooding late landscape of the same title. Both are on display. This imaginary scene, hemmed in by rocks and an oppressive sky, recalls both the craggy mountains painted by Salvator Rosa over a century earlier, but also the contemporary obsession with the Sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Gainsborough may also have been inspired by his friend, the immigrant artist, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, who presented landscapes in an unprecedented way in his Eidophusikon, a precursor of cinema which he set up in Leicester Square, with sequences of painted scenes and dramatically changing light effects. (The first exhibition of Loutherbourg’s work in a generation will be in Strasbourg this autumn.)

    For those at the Academy, such as Henry Fuseli, who feared that landscape could only ever amount to the “tame delineation of a given spot”, Gainsborough had demonstrated its potential to respond much more emotionally and imaginatively. This was a tendency that Turner seized and stretched in every possible direction. Having established his name at the Academy at breakneck speed through skillful lobbying of its movers and shakers to ensure his election at the earliest opportunity, the painting he presented as his Diploma Work represents him as an aspiring master, full of earnest bravura. Typically, his stylized depiction of Dolbadern Castle (1800) emanates from a detailed survey of the actual site in north Wales. Turner’s explorations of Britain at this early date were often translated into watercolours, and this kind of topographical approach remained a constant throughout his career, alongside his more sensational style of painting, which blurred the boundaries between genres.

  • JMW Turner RA, Durham Cathedral

    JMW Turner RA, Durham Cathedral, 1798-99.

    Photo: R.A./John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • During the summer months each year, once the Academy show was over, Turner would set off on tour. As well as glamorous destinations in Europe, such as Rome, Venice and Paris, he covered thousands of miles in Britain, from Sussex to north-western Scotland, and he was also a regular visitor to Yorkshire. Using the pencil sketches he made en route, he developed a series of watercolours, such as Durham Cathedral (1798-99). Like Gainsborough before him, he also recognized the importance of reproductive prints (whether through line engraving or mezzotint) as a means of securing a much bigger audience than he could impress at the Academy’s exhibitions.

    While Turner applied his own unique style to all he encountered on his travels, and quickly achieved success, Constable laboured long and hard to forge a very different type of painting that addressed the specifics of the places he knew well. If you go to East Bergholt or Dedham in Suffolk, you will have no problem spotting his subjects. But even if you have never been to Suffolk, you can’t miss the veracity of Constable’s depiction of the countryside. This is all too easy to take for granted now, but it appeared awkward and unconventional when seen in the early 19th century.

    Questioning the direction signposted by Turner, Constable had articulated his desire for a simpler, less artificial type of landscape, which he termed “natural peinture”. This led him to work directly in front of his subjects in oils. Though this was a practice that had long antecedents in British (and European) painting, what was unusual in Constable’s art was that he developed some of his compositions fairly fully en plein air, with only final revisions to the canvases once he got them back to his studio.

    By the 1820s, when he had at last begun to gain recognition at the Academy, Constable altered his method to produce some of the most ambitious landscapes of the period. Pictures such as The Leaping Horse (1825) retained the authenticity of his close observation of nature, but adopted an increasingly expressive application of the paint. And when the Hay Wain (1824) was shown in Paris it communicated a new vision of landscape and a fresh means of recording it that remained a palpable influence in France, from the Barbizon School to the Impressionists. In fact it is Constable, rather than Turner, who should be lauded as the “first Impressionist”. Either way, the achievements of the two men as landscape artists heralded and reflected a new fascination with the environment, which continues to stimulate new responses more than 150 years later, as seen in this show in contemporary works by Academicians Michael Kenny and Richard Long.

  • Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, John Madejski Fine Rooms and Weston Rooms, Royal Academy of Arts, 8 December–17 February 2013

    Loutherbourg (Strasbourg 1740-London 1812), Musée de la Ville de Strasbourg, 17 November–18 February 2013

    Ian Warrell is a curator and Turner scholar.

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