Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum brings stunning Constables back home

By Richard Moss | 18 May 2011
a painting of a cathedral with a rainbow seen from a meadow
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831© Private Collection/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Exhibition: Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury, May 20 - September 25 2011.

In the minds of most people with only a cursory knowledge of John Constable, the painter’s most famous landscapes were mainly inspired by the fields, rivers and vales of Suffolk.

Yet beyond famous works like The Hay Wain and Flatford Mill, another monumental oil highlights a different rural retreat where the artist also found abundant inspiration for his paintings.

Constable had many reasons to visit Salisbury, including love, friendship, beautiful countryside and voluminous skies. He once said: “The sky is the source of light in nature and gives us everything” and his famous painting of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, finished in 1831, is full of this passion for the heavens.

It is an arresting picture by any standard, but removed from its customary surrounds in London’s National Gallery and placed within a stone’s throw of where it was painted – it seems even more stunning. 


an oil painting of a windswept beach with a brooding, cloud-filled sky
Weymouth Bay, 1816© V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Executed at the time of the Great Reform Bill of 1829 and shortly after the death of his wife Maria in 1828, Constable added a hopeful rainbow to the characteristically cloud filled firmament brooding above the cathedral spire.

In the foreground he also included his signature group of rustic figures; a horse and wagon, a dog – and with a characteristically deft flash of red – an angler.

This monumental marriage of human, pastoral and spiritual is today seen as the pinnacle of the artist’s achievements and it makes for a fitting and breathtaking centrepiece to an impressive collection of over 50 oils, sketches, watercolours and pen and inks – all of them painted in the local area.

There are several studies of the cathedral – from the Close Wall and the River Avon (1820) and from the Bishop’s Grounds (1823) – views that are largely in tact today, but it’s the landscape sketches in oils, pen and inks made by Constable during his many forays into the surrounding landscape that really catch the eye here.

a painting of the standing stones of Stonehenge
Stonehenge (1836).
© V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Weymouth Bay (1816) is a radically modern painting on roughly hewn and unprimed millboard. As well as capturing the troubled sky above the Dorset coast it seems to anticipate Impressionism by decades. Full of skilled touches and casually agitated brush strokes, look closely and you can see the marks of rain where they fell onto the still wet paint.

The second room includes the results many more of these forays. Freed of the formality of Ecclesiastical heritage the sketches here, made in the surrounding countryside, offer a fascinating insight into the way Constable constructed his rustic foregrounds.

An old boat on the River near Salisbury (1820), a Bridge near Gillingham (1820) and an etching of Milford Bridge (1826) show the workings of an English landscape painter who knew how to capture the telling details of these bucolic settings.

a photo of a Cathedral spire seen from across fields
John Constable once stood here...
© Richard Moss / Culture24
A small watercolour, Sketch for a frame for the White Horse (1819), even reveals how Constable envisioned the setting for his paintings. Another tender portrayal in graphite pen, ink and grey wash reveals his great friend in Salisbury, Archdeacon Fisher, walking with his dogs on a country walk across a simple plank bridge.

This being Salisbury Museum the famous old abandoned village of Old Sarum and Stonehenge also make an appearance. The former is majestic beneath another cloud-filled sky whilst the latter compares favourably with the museum’s famous depiction of this ancient monument by JMW Turner.

It is fascinating enough to explore the way Constable’s work developed during his seven visits to Salisbury, but perhaps the final trump card lies in the preserved Constable landscape waiting right outside the museum door.

Simply by walking across the Cathedral green, a remarkably preserved Medieval and Georgian setting offers the chance to tread in the painter’s footsteps and, thanks to a series of walking trails specially developed to accompany the show, you can revisit the views and aspects that Constable captured on his many holidays, family visits and even his honeymoon. As a complimentary pair the exhibition and the setting succeed brilliantly.

There's a lot riding on this ambitious exhibition. Staff and Trustees raised £200,000 in sponsorship to stage it and they are hopeful it will kick start an increased interest in Salisbury, its museum with its brilliant archaeological collection, its medieval cathedral and everything else this charming city in the countryside has to offer.

One can’t help but think Constable and his friend Archdeacon Fisher would have approved of this venture.

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