Royal Academy of Arts shows Constable, Gainsborough and Turner's English landscape

By Ruth Hazard | 10 January 2013
a painting of clouds
John Constable, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right (September 11 1821)© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer John Hammond

Exhibition review: Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until February 17 2013

There’s an air of hesitation in the opening room of this exhibition, as hushed murmurings question whether this is, in fact, the Constable, Gainsborough and Turner display visitors were hoping to see.

A bold decision to start out with a collection of landscape art by contemporary royal academicians may be the cause of the momentary confusion, but it also encourages a fresh perspective on the headline display of historic works.

From John Maine’s imposing Indian black granite sculpture to the abstract detail of Michael Kenny’s hills, rivers and shores and the printed verse of Richard Long, the multi-faceted ways the landscape is reimagined by artists in the present serve as a profound reminder of the legacy that Constable, Gainsborough and Turner have left behind.

During the early 18th century, landscape art was largely topographical; a means by which to record rural Britain and snootily regarded as a "lesser genre".

Influenced by the work of French, Italian and Dutch masters who revelled in reproducing their native landscapes with flair and passion, the Royal Academy’s foundation members, Thomas Gainsborough, Richard Wilson and Paul Sandby, set out to make this a credible subject for artistic attention in Britain.

a painting of a castle at the end of a mountain vallery
JMW Turner, Dolbadern Castle (1800)© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited
With Gainsborough leading the charge, the genre began a gradual evolution. Resistant to the idea that landscape paintings should be based on "real views" of nature, Gainsborough instead created idealised rural scenes based on what he had seen in Suffolk, the Lake District and the West Country.

But it wasn’t until a new generation of painters stepped into the fray that landscape painting fully realised its potential as a serious artistic genre.

Turner’s focus on poetic subject matter and Constable’s predilection for sentimental imagery proved that landscape painting was a truly artistic pursuit, heavily concerned with emotion rather than mere representation.

Constable created a series of "six-footer" landscape oils - a substantial project usually reserved only for history painting - while Turner tried to encourage formal acknowledgment of the genre by asking the Academy to establish a professorship in Landscape Painting.

This display is an incredible rediscovery of the genre. Black and white pastures produced by topographers during the early 1700s seem almost cartoonlike, giving way to the richly detailed landscapes and dramatic watercolours from the latter half of the century, the evolution of landscape painting quite literally unfolding before your eyes.

While the three protagonists were certainly challengers of tradition, it’s hard to picture them as out-and-out rebels.

They did not see landscape painting as a means by which to defy artistic practice, but instead as a way of enriching it.

Cast your mind back to the opening room and it seems that’s exactly what these three great painters helped to achieve.

  • Open 10am-4.30pm (10pm Friday, 6pm Saturday and Sunday). Admission £3-£8, book online. Follow the Academy on Twitter @royalacademy.

More pictures:

a painting of a landscape with valley, shepherd, sheep, rocks and distant mountain
Thomas Gainsborough, Romantic Landscape (circa 1783)© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

a painting of the frontage of an abbey with people in eighteenth century clothing in front
Michael Angelo Rooker, The Gatehouse of Battle Abbey, Sussex (1792)© Royal Academy of Arts, London

a painting of a man on horesback crossing a small wooden bridge next to a river with a sailing boat
John Constable, The Leaping Horse (1825)© Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photo John Hammond

an etching of a lake with cattle feeding in its shallow waters and a boat morred at its shore with a large ruin on a rock promentory in the distance
JMW Turner, Norham Castle on the Tweed (January 1 1816)© Royal Academy of Arts, London

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