English Reading Practice

Battle on the beach

By Alastair Sooke

[from Radio Times 6-12 September 2014]

In the summer of 1824, John Constable set off for the seaside. His destination was the fashionable resort of Brighton, frequented by George IV. For the artist, though, it was a trip not of pleasure but of duty.  "We are told we must try the sea," he wrote through gritted teeth to his closest friend, the Reverend John Fisher, passing on the doctor's advice regarding the health of his wife, Maria, who was suffering from tuberculosis.

          Three months later, he wrote to Fisher again, berating Brighton as "the receptacle of the fashion and off-scouring of London." His worst suspicions had been confirmed. As Constable saw it, the town was a tumult of undressed ladies, gentlemen in slippers, footmen, children, nursery-maids, dogs, boys, fishermen and "hideous" old bathing-women.

          Brighton was certainly a world apart from the Stour Valley between Suffolk and Essex where Constable had passed his "careless boyhood". This stretch of gentle countryside had inspired his famous landscapes depicting the things he loved most of all: "The sound of water escaping from mill dams... Willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork." This is what we encounter in his celebrated "six-footer" oil paintings such as The White Horse (1819), Stratford Mill (1820) and The Hay Wain (1821).

          Yet as I learnt while making Constable: a Country Rebel, airing ahead of the V&A's major autumn exhibition Constable the Making of a Master, Brighton also had a big impact upon him as a painter. He may well have arrived holding his nose to avoid the smell of rotting fish, and despairing  at the impropriety of pleasure-seekers, but he left artistically invigorated. His extended visits to Brighton between 1824 and 1828 yielded an important and surprising "six-footer" depicting the recently constructed chain pier.

          "Brighton just opened him up," says artist Peter Harrap, who now occupies the very house the Constables once rented, and uses Constable's "painting room" as a studio himself. "The way he was painting in Brighton was much freer and more adventurous," adds Harrap. "He was on fire: painting like a demon, producing a painting every two hours - 150 paintings over 4 years. I often wake up thinking, 'How on earth did he manage to produce so much work?' It's insane."

Reading Practice 6 Battle Pt 1.MP3


A lot of this work took the form of vigorous oil sketches, executed rapidly out of doors during Constable's excursions along the beach and across the downs behind the town. "There is nothing here for a painter but the breakers and the sky," he wrote to John Fisher - but in Constable's hands, these proved to be more than sufficient. In one brilliant sketch, a few quick-fire downward brush strokes summon the impression of a rainstorm raging above the sea.

          The biggest composition to emerge from his time in Sussex was his unusual Chain Pier, Brighton. This wasn't a bucolic scene but a marine subject - a genre more closely associated with his rival, JMW Turner. In his letter to Fisher lambasting Brighton, Constable had dismissed such subjects as "hackneyed", and slammed the "dandy jetty" itself, which had swiftly become a gathering for the resort's modish visitors after opening in 1823.

          So why did Constable paint such a modern scene? According to art historian Jonathon Clarkson it allowed Constable to  express his conflicted feelings about the place: "Brighton is where the conventions of the picturesque fall apart, because they are brought up against the reality of urban development."

          Constable's Chain Pier polarised critics at the Royal Academy in 1827, yet it made Turner pay him attention. Irked that Constable had encroached upon his territory, Turner travelled to Brighton a year later and began painting the pier for himself, though he chose a different viewpoint, so that a golden sunset would ignite buildings on the seafront.

          Sadly, Constable's Brighton summer didn't last. In 1828 his beloved Maria died. The next year, he was finally elected a full Academician. Upon hearing the news, Turner called upon his fellow artist to congratulate him but, still grieving for Maria, Constable could take only a little solace. Still, it was something: his years in Brighton had won Constable the respect of arguably the greatest artist of the age.

© 2014 Radio Times



Brighton's Chain Pier, as depicted by Constable in 1827 (above) and his rival JMW Turner (below).