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Thursday, November 11, 2010


Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, (1824-26)

John Constable, Self Portrait (1806) Tate Gallery


John Constable (1776 – 1837) was an English painter associated with the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. Born in Suffolk, he is known principally for his landscape paintings of Dedham Vale, an area surrounding his home—now known as "Constable Country"—which he invested with an intensity of affection. "I should paint my own places best", he wrote to his friend John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, in 1821, "painting is but another word for feeling."

His most famous paintings include Dedham Vale of 1802

[click on the images to expand their size]

and The Hay Wain of 1821.

I have chosen to focus on Constable's painting of Salisbury Cathedral, of 1825, due to its possible associations with religious controversies of the period, and hence on its value in revealing a political aspect of Romanticism, a politically conservative aspect. Although his paintings are now among the most popular and valuable in British art, he was never financially successful and did not become a member of the establishment until he was elected to the Royal Academy at the age of 52. He sold more paintings in France than in his native England. But he was not sympathetic to Radicalism in any form, and stands today as one of the prime examples of English conservatism.

The Painting: Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, (1824-26)

The image below is the one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, ca. 1825. A second version of 1826 is in the Frick Collection in New York, and there’s another in the Huntington Library and Art Gallery in Pasadena. It depicts the cathedral at Salisbury as seen from what was known as the Bishop’s Meadow. Bishop John Fisher, at the time the sitting bishop in this diocese and a personal friend of the artist, is seen walking with his wife in the extreme left of the painting, and he is pointing with his walking stick towards the cathedral, and most likely, although it is difficult to tell, to the tower and steeple of the church. Or perhaps, to the turbulent sky above it.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds (1825) Metropolitan Museum, New York

The original version of this painting is presently in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was commissioned by the bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher in 1822. In July 1824, he asked Constable to revise it, whereupon the canvas now in the Metropolitan Museum was begun. Infrared photography reveals that it started with an outline traced from the first version, and that the artist then improvised directly on the canvas, painting in the sky and opening up the foliage arching over the south transept to give the spire a more dominant role in the composition. In Constable's estate sale, this work was described as "nearly finished." It is indeed a study for the final version, completed in 1826 (Frick Collection, New York).

The “Truth” of the Artist

One of Constable guiding assumptions was that he was motivated by an uncompromising quest for the truth, much like the physical scientist, whom the artist emulated in his quest for answers. In a letter to John Dunthorne of 1802, he says precisely this. “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of Nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?” (Letter to John Dunthorne, 1802).

The quest for truth is particularly evident in Constable’s consistent effort to depict the sky as accurately as possible. There is abundant evidence that he spent considerable time and skill on this particular effort. The same cannot be said of the foliage of his trees, which also occupy vast portions of his canvasses, but are characterized by a fuzziness and blurring that foreshadow the work of the Impressionists. The quest for truth is not altogether consistent, as the artist is selective in this pursuit and generally stands by the imperative outlined by Wordsworth to the effect that art requires the suspension of disbelief.

Whence and why this preoccupation with Truth then? “The great vice of the present day” – he wrote in 1802 -, “is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.” (Letter to John Dunthorne, 1802). Indeed, the value of “truth” therefore was that it trumped ‘bravura,’ exaggeration, bombast, and a daring venture towards the ideal. Constable would stick to the truth in his paintings, and, if possible, help turn the clock back to what he considered to have been a better age in England’s green land.


Yet though Constable kept his eye on a naturalistic truth, which he considered to be an aspect of his ‘science’ of painting, he did not want to look towards the truth of the changing landscape of an increasingly industrialized England. As pointed out in Notes on Romanticism Part 3 (my blog post of April 4, 2010) with regards to the poetry of Wordsworth, one of the most telling aspects of the Romantic movement was its refusal to accept the ugliness of the new society, the scars on the land and on its people for which increasing and unbridled industrialization was responsible. Art provided a refuge for this conservative sentiment, a need for psychological soothing, and the template for this sentiment was the requirement of nostalgia.

The etymology of the word ‘nostalgia’ is well known, perhaps thanks to Homer. The word is based on the Greek nostos, returning home, and algios, a pain or ache. It is a form of longing for return, for re-visit, which causes a sweet and desired, psychologically soothing ache. In its modern conception it is arguably born in Romanticism, which is its ideology converted into fine art.

Constable stands in the cusp between ‘nostalgia’ as a purely aesthetic concept (consider, for example, the “pastoral” mood of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony) and the concept that eclipses it: nostalgia as concerns the aspirations of psychology, sociology and political philosophy. I argue that his painting of Salisbury Cathedral is both art and politics, aesthetics and ideology. Today nostalgia is all the latter: a longing for the past defined as a psychological condition, a sociological determination among certain social classes for a return to the past, and its political counterpart, fascism, or some forms of conservative reaction. But it was once simply a longing for a rural past, for a tranquility and simplicity associated with the agricultural political economy.

Patrick Gardiner has expounded on Schopenhauer’s psychological analysis of nostalgia and its relation to aesthetic contemplation: “Schopenhauer thinks that the quality of ‘will-lessness’ intrinsic to aesthetic contemplation is also characteristic of some kinds of memory experience. . . . Thus he asks why it is that particular sections or moments of our lives, recovered and recalled from the long distant past, often come back to us in so strange and enchanted a light and under an aspect quite different from that under which they appeared to us at the time. The explanation is that when we remember such events is it is only the ‘objective’ content of what was originally experienced that returns to us; the ‘individually subjective’ accompaniment, in the shape of anxieties and desires that distorted our apprehension and wrecked our enjoyment, is forgotten and absent. Hence the illusion arises that the scenes and happenings of which we were then conscious lay before us in as pure and undisturbed a form as their images stand before us now in recollection, so that far off days appear to the eyes of memory as fragments of a ‘lost paradise.’ The release from the subjective wants and cares, which in the case of memory we wrongly suppose ourselves to have enjoyed as other times by transferring to the past our present detachment from the interests that then occupied us, is in the case of aesthetic contemplation a present though transitory reality. At one point (Parerga II, 447) Schopenhauer even suggests that the main problem of philosophical aesthetics lies in the question of how it is possible to find satisfaction in something that bears no relation to our will, claiming that the question is answered once it is realized that aesthetic satisfaction consists precisely in the absence of all willing.” (Patrick Gardiner, Schopenhauer, Penguin, 1963, pp. 195-96).

The depiction of nostalgia

Is there a technique by which nostalgia can be depicted? In Constable’s paintings, it is not only their subject matter which evokes the nostalgia for the past and for a rural and green England. There is a visual effect that his paintings cause which beckons the unwary eye towards ‘greener pastures,’ i.e. towards the desired nostalgia. Directly in the foreground of the paintings there is turbulence, action, movement, busy-ness, or people, animals, objects, something distinct and objective to look at. The middle ground of the paintings, toward which the eye is directed as towards a release, is the locus amoenus, the comfortable place, usually a sunny meadow. Finally, as the eye moves upwards to the beyond of the sky, we reach the organ of sentiment. The sky is what will finally determine our mood. The nostalgic thrust finds the locus amoenus for the eye, but the eye cannot rest there. It seeks the sky as for a liberation, and there encounters the signification of the painting. If the sky is turbulent, the painting is ominous, darkened, frightful, and the nostalgic element is imperiled. If the sky is clear and sunny, a more optimistic mood is elicited. The soft clouds and sunny skies above Wivenhoe Park (below) render the mood neutral, or at worst, peaceful and tranquil. There are no threats to Wivenhoe Park or its residents.

In this painting, Constable contrasts his blue, green and gray palette to the red brick manor house, which is made to stand out by the use of warmer colors. Constable wrote about having great difficulty incorporating the thatch-roofed deer barn. In order to do so, as requested by his patrons, he sewed an inch of extra fabric to the far right of the canvas. He had to then sew an extra inch on the left side in order to restore the balance of his composition. On the left, he painted the owners’ daughter, Mary Rebow, driving a donkey cart.

Wivenhoe Park (1816)
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All of Constable’s paintings have a locus amoenus. In the painting of Salisbury Cathedral it is the meadow that surrounds the Cathedral, and the Cathedral itself, the Gothic past in its silvery medieval splendor. As well, nostalgia in Constable appears by way of the painter’s “green formula.” Constable’s paintings are characterized by their “green-ness”, the moistness, dew, rivers, ponds and water, ever-present in them. It has come to be considered the prototypical “Englishness” of Constable, and it is primarily because it is part and parcel of his nostalgic artifice. The locus amoenus is almost invariably green and watery in all of his paintings.

The Gothic Revival

The Gothic Revival is an artistic, originally an architectural, movement of the nineteenth century which is intimately associated with Romanticism, a statement that requires further elaboration and exploration. The first nostalgic imitation of Gothic architecture appeared in the 18th century, when scores of houses with castle-style battlements were built in England, but it was only toward the mid-19th century that a true Gothic Revival developed. The mere imitation of Gothic forms and details then became its least important aspect, as architects focused on creating original works based on underlying Gothic principles, primarily the Gothic skeleton structure. Though the movement began losing force toward the end of the century, Gothic-style churches, government and collegiate buildings continued to be constructed in Britain and the U.S. well into the 20th century.

Barry's and Pugin’s Houses of Parliament in London.
Construction began in 1840 and continued for over thirty years.

The Gothic Revival: Nostalgia for a Broken Age

The predilection for Gothic architecture, painting and design in the Victorian Era answers to the same dynamic of nostalgia that motivated a lot of the Romantic Movement that preceded it. In his first ‘untimely meditation’ on David Strauss (David Strauss: der Bekenner und der Schriftsteller, 'David Strauss, The Confessor and the Writer,' 1873), which is a broadside attack on the philistinism of the European culture of the mid-century, Nietzsche remarks on the prevalence of eclecticism in the modern consciousness, and he attributes this eclecticism to the lack of a pre-eminent style, a unifying principle for art and thought that could be said to characterize the entire culture and hence render it a true Culture. The way in which the nineteenth century European bourgeoisie scoured the world for cultures it could adopt and adorn itself with is, according to Nietzsche, actually a total lack of style, of taste, and, ultimately, of a God. The Gothic revival of its medieval past, which swept through Europe in the early and mid-nineteenth century, can be seen therefore as the nostalgia required by a broken age.

City of Birmingham Law Courts (1887-1891)

The turbulent sky

English politics in the decade of the eighteen-twenties is riven by conflicts for inclusion in the electoral process, caused by persistent economic hardship after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and by reaction to the revolutionary events in France. Towards the end of the decade, a faction of the governing elite, the Liberal Tories primarily under the leadership of George Canning, was able to pass legislation that abolished all restrictions on Dissenters and Catholics from voting in parliamentary elections.

The conservative and negative reaction to these measures, which were embodied in the Test and Corporation Acts of 1829, lifting the disabilities imposed on Dissenters after the Restoration of the Monarchy in the 1660’s, and the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828, was overwhelming. It led to a confrontation which resulted in the Great Reform Act of 1832, a political crisis that was not resolved until the 1840’s and the compromises of the Victorian Age. The gloom generated among partisans of the Establishment of the Church of England informed the politics of conservatism in England until the end of the century. It was a crucial element in Gladstone’s liberalism as well as in the High Tory ideology of Disraeli. And it influenced most intellectual discourse in the nation. Constable was a faithful supporter of the Establishment, and he counted many of its stalwarts among his friends, including Bishop Fisher of Salisbury, who is depicted in the painting of Salisbury Cathedral.

Did the cloudy sky above that Gothic pile, the characteristic “organ of sentiment” in Constable’s paintings, represent his gloomy thoughts about the threat to the Church of England posed by the abolition of disabilities on Catholics and Dissenters?

Salisbury Cathedral (1825) detail

It is impossible to prove this, but it is a fair speculation. The painting as a whole is a depiction of Old England. The figure of the Bishop, dressed in the traditional clerical black garb, wearing a three-cornered hat, stands for the conservatism of the Church, and with his walking stick, the Bishop points towards the beyond. Whether the beyond is the great steeple of the medieval church, or to the turbulent sky above it, is basically inconsequential. It points to what is threatened, to what is missed and longed for: the vanishing Past.

Salisbury Cathedral (1825) detail

John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury, and his wife, pacing the grounds, the Bishop pointing with his cane at the tower of the cathedral, or maybe at the lowering sky

Among those who would turn the clock back in the early decades of the English nineteenth century, Constable is one. His painting of Salisbury Cathedral is indicative of his mood and of his intent. As such, this painting is a component of the Romantic Movement, and illustrates a conservative element in it which belies the usual characterization of that movement as politically radical and progressive. An alternative element in Romanticism is evident in the paintings of Delacroix, or in the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, the subject of Parts 6 and 7 of these Notes on Romanticism which I shall post shortly on my blog.

John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.