Natural selection

The Royal Academy has boldly begun and ended 2012 with exhibitions exploring what is radical about that most conservative genre, British landscape painting. David Hockney in the main galleries in January was a sensation and a risk. Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, just opened in the beautifully panelled, domestic-scaled John Madejski Fine Rooms and Weston Rooms, unfolds more subtly and quietly, yet the concerns here are unexpectedly close to those of Hockney’s iPad paintings of Yorkshire. The expressive power of a landscape intensely known as an emotional experience and the dissemination of painterly images in media other than oil on canvas are the twin themes of both shows.

With varying degrees of truculence, Constable, Gainsborough and Turner all became Royal Academicians and their diploma works, submitted on joining, along with other gifts and bequests, form the core of this tightly focused display. Gainsborough, celebrated as a portraitist, left his late, large “Romantic Landscape” (1783) to the Academy to assert his reputation as a landscape painter: its jagged rocks, views of forests and castles stretching away to distant mountains, all bathed in a twilight glow, create a composition that is the quintessence of the romantic sublime. Although his breezily engaging “Self-portrait”, hanging alongside, is a better, more distinctive painting, “Romantic Landscape” is significant for signalling new ambitions for the genre.

An introductory room argues for the beginning of British landscape a generation earlier, with representations of nature fused with mythical narratives such as Richard Wilson’s “Niobe” (1761), which relates how the Theban queen in Ovid’s Metamorphoses was punished for boasting about the number and beauty of her children; here she huddles under a tree while lightning streaks the sky and a gale froths the sea.

But the show really takes fire with Constable. “I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree,” he wrote in 1799, though he was already trying for something different. He had to wait another three decades before the RA elected him a member – aged 53; thus his diploma submission is, uncharacteristically of such works, a mature masterpiece: a study of threatening clouds and light glistening on water energising the quotidian scene of “A Boat passing a Lock”.

Constable depicts the instant before the weather breaks, with everything about to happen: a darkening sky dominates the foreground but a nearby village still shines bright, a dog glances around warily, the barge sail is half-unfurled. Constable called it “a lovely subject, of the canal kind, lively – & soothing – calm & exhilarating, fresh – & blowing.” The opposite of the romantic sublime, it is a perfect illustration in visual terms of the romanticism of everyday life advocated by Wordsworth – “the real language of men” conveying “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity”.

Gainsborough’s ‘Romantic Landscape’ (1783)

“Painting for me is but another word for feeling,” said Constable. What he called “the chiaroscuro of nature” animates his compositions: dramas of constantly changing masses of light and dark bring an urgency and expressive sensibility to paintings of unglamorous, homely scenes. The small, freely handled sketches of clouds in Hampstead – he marked on the back the date, hour of the day, direction of the wind – are highlights of this show, vivid and direct. The miracle is that he maintained that freshness and spontaneity in the 6ft River Stour canvases exhibited at the Royal Academy each year from 1819 to 1825.

Like Hockney, Constable returned here to the beloved countryside of his boyhood, and made claims that such landscapes could in scale and emotional resonance challenge history painting. The RA owns the greatest, “The Leaping Horse”: a barge horse jumping a lock gate achieves the grandeur of a monumental sculpture. A willow surges up, enhancing the dynamism of a composition where one feels wind rushing through trees, a storm beginning to whip the clouds, with sweeping effects – a rough slab of white paint representing a boat, for example – to match.

Soon after “The Leaping Horse” Constable’s wife Maria became ill, dying in 1829. “Every gleam of sunshine is blighted for me. Tempest on tempest rolls. Still the darkness is majestic,” Constable wrote. Unable any longer to respond instinctively to nature, he developed a more contrived style, spending years on the painting, and print version, of “The Rainbow, Salisbury Cathedral”. Maybe the close collaboration with engraver David Lucas was a comfort in his loneliness: certainly Lucas’s translation of Constable’s emotional painterly language into intense black-and-white was one of the most successful painter-printer relationships in history. Mezzotint, with its dense tonal contrasts and suggestion of the swirl of impasto, was the ideal print medium for Constable; his last letter, written the day before he died in 1837, concerned the “Salisbury Cathedral” print, “a noble and beautiful thing ... made perfect”.

Turner’s ‘Norham Castle on the Tweed’ (1816)

While Constable was finding “my limited and restricted art ... under every hedge”, Turner was criss-crossing Europe in search of pictorial provocation. This show is an unfair face-off between the two geniuses of British 19th-century art. Turner became an Academician at 24; thus his diploma piece, “Dolbadarn Castle”, a brooding vision of a tower silhouetted against a mountain landscape influenced by Wilson’s sombre tonalities, is conventional, novice work compared with the Constables here.

Nonetheless, it crystallises Turner’s youthful aims. Dolbadarn was the medieval Welsh fortress where Llywelyn the Last imprisoned his brother Owain, who is the bound figure in the foreground of the picture. Without compromising the broad composition of cloud, cliff and tower, Turner ventured a historical dimension into a sublime scene: landscape, he proved, can itself be history painting.

That argument enlivens Turner’s “Picturesque Views of England and London”, a series of line engravings where black-and-white is expressive of the nuances of his watercolours and gouaches, and supreme light effects are achieved.

The diversity of 19th-century urban, rustic, mercantile, maritime life here belies the simple title – the range encompasses a rural paradise spotlit by the sun rising above the dark form of “Norham Castle on the Tweed” and the symbolic clash of old and new in “Dudley, Worcestershire”, where the moonlit ruins of Dudley Abbey look down on a fire-lit Midlands industrial vista. Thus the topographical view morphed into history paintings in Baudelaire’s sense: fast-changing modern life rendered with the gravitas of the historical genre, revolutionising the status and potential of British landscape art.

‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape’, Royal Academy, London, to February 17.

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