The Angry Corrie 19: Jul-Sep 1994


Great Painters of the Mountains
No. 1: John Constable 1776-1837

An appreciation by Perkin Warbeck

"William Blake was the first painter after the Renaissance who consciously revolted against the accepted standards of tradition. There was one branch of painting that profited much by the artist's new freedom in his choice of subject matter - this was landscape painting. Previously the painters who earned their living painting views of country houses, parks or picturesque scenery were not taken as seriously as artists. This attitude changed somewhat through the Romantic spirit of the eighteenth century and great artists saw it as their purpose in life to raise this type of painting to a new dignity." EH Gombrich, The Story of Art, pp388-9

ONE SUCH was John Constable. He caused controversy on a par with the pile of bricks in the Tate by not painting his foregrounds the rich mellow brown colour of an old violin. John just refused to be more impressive than nature. All very laudable I'm sure, but he made a fatal error. He chose Albion nature to be less impressive than. Wouldn't it have made a bit more sense to paint a mighty summit like Caspar David Friedrich's Landscape in the Silesian Mountains? It's like something out of Lord of the Rings.

Or take the realist school. There's a painting in Kelvingrove of the Three Sisters of Glen Coe which you can plan a route from. Old John's most famous painting on the other hand is the so-called Haywain - featuring an old mill by a stream, a horse and cart, a dog and a wee wean in the foreground which is not the rich mellow brown colour of an old violin. Far more evocative is Walt Poucher describing the sun setting over Sgurr Alasdair as "...the colour of Bill Nelson's Sunburst Les Paul".

Back in the Haywain, we've got a massive expanse of sky with cloud galleons scudding across it. The reason for the vast skyscape is sadly that there are no mighty summits in the background. Not a sausage. Albion's unrelenting flatness. A bloody poplar tree is the highest object. The horizon is so flat old Constable must have drawn it with his masonic set square. (Incidentally, if the reader is wondering why we have illustrated this article with Albion Castle and the Sea instead of the Haywain, it's because JC was so busy making the foreground not the rich mellow brown colour of an old violin that he forgot to give it enough contrast for us to scan these 200 years later.)

JC was pivotal in the elevation of the landscape to Real Art, yet his landscapes make the Pond District look exciting. Of course painting is a subjective art and one would be hard pushed to see the graceful spire of Sgurr nan Gillean in Dali's Apparition of face and fruit dish on a beach, but the point surely is that Dali is not trying to excite the rambler whereas Constable is. You can be damn sure if Dali was doing a landscape there would be mighty curving rock spires in it, not horses and carts and lily ponds. Of course the would-be Dali bagger would have to rope up and fasten on diamond-tipped crampons for the treacherously slippy melted giant watch faces.

Artists and hillwalkers don't mix too well. Imagine getting directions for the tourist route up Schiehallion from Magritte... "Ceci n'est pas le promenade". Yes tout tres bon Rene mon vieux ami, but where is the flipping path?

As a posthumous suggestion to Constable as to how he could have spent his time, how about For Auld Lang Syne (left, painter unknown). It has surely got the lot - mighty stag, ruined mysterious castle, mist-covered mountains and a good bit of the ancient Caledonian pine forest. If only there were a few more paintings like this and a few less cows in formaldehyde, our children might be in some danger of getting a taste for la vie jolie.


TAC 19 Index