Constable and the clouds

THE ARTIST JOHN Constable (1776-1837) loved Hampstead and eventually lived there. It was in that part of London, then a large village, that he became fascinated by the depiction of clouds. Here is an extract relating to this from a book about Hampstead, which I am in the process of writing:

In the last of a series lectures he gave to the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street in 1836, Constable emphasised his systematic approach to depicting nature, by saying:

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”

Clouds over Hampstead Heath by John Constable

One of Hampstead’s attractions for Constable was its wide expanse of sky, which, as the historian Thomas Barratt wrote, the artist:

“… regarded as the keynote of landscape art, and so assiduously did he study cloud, sky, and atmosphere in the Hampstead days that Leslie, his biographer, was able to become possessed of twenty of these special studies, each dated and described. Constable was a man of Wordsworthian simplicity of character, fond of all things rural, and devotedly attached to birds and animals.”

The website of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum reinforces what Barratt wrote:

“While living at Hampstead, Constable made a series of oil sketches of the sky alone, each one marked with the date, time and a short description of the conditions. His interest in clouds was influenced partly by the work of the scientist Luke Howard, who had in 1803 written a pioneering study, classifying different types of cloud …”

In “The Invention of Clouds” by Richard Hamblyn, a biography of the chemist and amateur meteorologist, who devised the modern classification of clouds (cumulus, nimbus, etc.), Luke Howard (1772-1864), it is noted that Constable, who was familiar with Howard’s work, focussed his concentration:

“… on the extension of his observational range and clouds were the means that he had chosen for the task. After years of searching for an isolated image, seeking a motif upon which to weigh his technical advancement as a painter, he had found it at last in the unending sequences of clouds that emerged and dissolved before his eyes like images on a photographic plate.”

During the summers of 1821 and 1822, Constable made over one hundred cloud studies on the higher ground of Hampstead and its heath.  Writing in 1964 in his “The Philosophy of Modern Art”, the art critic/historian Herbert Read (1893-1968), who lived in Hampstead, commented that Constable was:

“… rather a modest craftsman, interested in the efficiency of his tools, the chemistry of his materials, the technique of his craft. His preparatory ‘sketches’ are no more romantic than a weather report. But they are accurate, they are vividly expressed, they are truthful.”

Read next contrasted Constable with Turner, pointing out that the former was far more attentive to depicting nature accurately than the latter, who became increasingly extravagant in his portrayal of it, always moving towards what is now called ‘expressionist’. Barratt wrote that although Constable admired Turner, he had no desire to imitate him and:

“He knew his limits, and recognised that within those limits were to be found subjects worthy of the highest aspirations. “I was born to paint a happier land,” he wrote, “ my own dear England ; and when I cease to love her may I, as Wordsworth says, — ‘never more hear her green leaves rustle or her torrents roar..’”

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