It is a measure of the importance of Brighthelmston, Sussex – the central painting around which this exhibition revolves, lost from public display for more than 100 years before being bought by the local museums service last year – that it has drawn so many intriguing accompanying loans to an elegant little portrait of Brighton.
If there is a defining year for the exhibition, it could be 1824. Constable stayed in a cottage at the western end of the town during a summer in which Turner, as the most high-profile artist of his time at the age of 49, visited for a couple of June days.
© Jim Holden / Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove
“I think both artists were really interested in understanding how things work,” says Ian Warrell, a Turner expert and the curator of the show.
“In Turner’s little sketchbook he makes lots of little studies of parts of the chain pier. He’s trying to understand how it all comes together.
“But Turner works so quickly, he just needs to get the sketches very quickly done. He just needs to get the essence of something because he retains so much in his mind.
“The pencil sketches are almost like prompts – a memoir, really, for something else to be created on top.
“Turner really celebrates the technical ingenuity of the chain pier – essentially, it was a suspension bridge out at sea. The fishing boats could unload their trade for the town, and the bigger boats would go across to Dieppe to find a quicker route to Paris.”
Constable, too, works off “nuances”, according to Warrell.
“He was here for long periods, so he really got a sense of Brighton. He makes individual studies of the effects of the sky and the waves as it’s changing.
“I think there’s a plan to do a Constable show in Brighton in a few years’ time. His sketches are so beautiful – in some ways nicer than his finished pictures.
“Rather like Turner, they have that direct spontaneity. Turner’s all about colour and Constable’s much more structured.”
Jenny Lund, the resident Curator of Fine Art, agrees that Constable’s works are “much more precise” in their methods.
“You sense that with all the Constables here,” she feels. Her favourites are a quartet of works with fishermen as their focus, visualised on blue paper.
“The sketchiness of them…the light is absolutely beautiful,” she adds, also highlighting a rainbow-arced painting, loaned from the Tate, as “really, really showing Turner’s extreme talent.”
“Ian told me that, although it looks idyllic, these are actually prison boats.”
Warrell says the rainbow represents “a really interesting kind of optical period” among artists during the early 19th century.
“It was about how they’re produced, what kind of colour sequences they create,” he muses.
“Even people like Mark Gertler were speculating during the same, or a slightly earlier, period.
“We take these things for granted now because it’s all been done so much. But this was a formative period – so much was being understood for the first time.”
Brighton’s newest gallery acquisition, though, dominates the horizon. Lund calls it “a pleasure” to contextualise its “unique place” against contemporary and topographical versions of the area.
Councillor Geoffrey Bowden, the Chair of the city’s Culture Committee, has even symbolised his love for the piece by setting it as the background for his work and personal phones.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘how the hell did he get that vista?'” he says, keeping his handset handy.
“He must have been sitting on a boat wretching. But actually he was sitting on the pier and projected this through his sketches.
“It was acquired from a private collection. We hadn’t seen it for a hundred years as it had been owned by this family. It just so happened that they were putting it onto the market themselves.
“Originally they put it onto the market in New York. When we got wind of it we managed to get some external funding to acquire it.”
The Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund were major backers.
“It’s so evocative of the time, although the last time it was here it was in a rather garish-looking frame.
“You get a better sense of what it’s about now. It’s been the magnet that’s drawn all these paintings from other collections.”
- Turner in Brighton runs until March 2 2014. Read our Review.
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