A breath of fresh air: Fred Cuming RA on Constable

Published 19 September 2014

Ahead of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Fred Cuming RA pays tribute to his work, and his lasting influence.

  • You can feel the air in Constable’s work – the stillness before a storm, the breeze, the squalls, the rain, the brilliance of sunlight. His colour is full of mood; it speaks, it is poetic. The handling of paint can be energetic or placid as the subject demands. He was a quiet religious man, and the focus of his passion lay in his studies of land, sea and sky, the transient ever-changing English weather.

    In the 1950s, when I was a student at the Royal College of Art, I would walk through the collection of Constable’s sketches in the V&A and receive my daily shot of adrenalin. This was my first taste of the power of his sketches. Even now at age 84, they are imprinted on my mind and affect all my work. Like many painters, I have used Constable as a foundation – he is an elusive inspiration, one of the greats, a high point in the history of painting.

    Constable’s effect on the history of art is immeasurable; Delacroix, Corot, the Impressionists and practically all schools of landscape painting were influenced by his work. One could also imagine that Constable might have inspired Debussy’s La Mer, or Britten’s Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes, for example.

  • John Constable RA, A Windmill near Brighton

    John Constable RA, A Windmill near Brighton, c. 1828-29.

    © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  • The drawings in Constable’s tiny sketchbooks, which were remarkable for their minute observation and detail, were transformed into major works. The landscape painter Richard Eurich RA once noted that these sketches were the products of years of concentrated observation, allowing Constable to know exactly what he wanted and how to achieve it. Some of them were obviously worked and reworked, yet they retain a remarkable freshness.

    I find it difficult to choose a favourite work – they are all so strong. Would it be the Royal Academy’s The Leaping Horse (1824-25)? Or the tiny A Windmill near Brighton (c.1828- 29)? That powerful work – the chiaroscuro, the violent use of contrast and colour – could have been painted by Rembrandt or by Van Gogh. Constable owed a debt to Dutch painting.

    Or perhaps it would be the Weymouth Bay series (a sketch from 1816 is in the show). The largest work in the series, in the National Gallery, is dubbed unfinished, but perhaps Constable stopped at the point where he could say no more. He had achieved perfection. The painting is reminiscent of Keats or Wordsworth, sheer visual poetry. The Opening of the Waterloo Bridge series (1817-32) would also be among my favourite Constables. Here are all his strengths – atmosphere, consummate skill and detail – all under complete control. Put into any modern exhibition of landscape painting they would not look out of place. By modern standards they would be small – even the seven-footer in the Tate – but they are so powerful, they might well eclipse everything else.

    Constable: The Making of a Master is at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 20 September –11 January 2015.

    Fred Cuming RA is a painter, and was elected Royal Academician in 1974.

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