Our rolling English countryside, all muted greens and browns, seen under grey skies, lit by setting sun or swirling with river mists, is the focus of a major exhibition at Laing Art Gallery that captures the late 18th and early 19th Century trend of painting in the great outdoors.
Chief among the artists who pioneered this new way of working were John Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner and the exhibition, on loan to the Newcastle gallery from the Tate Collection in London, promises a breath of fresh air for art lovers wanting to learn more about the techniques of two of the country’s greatest ever landscape painters.
Here they can compare and contrast the working styles and methods employed by these rival artists, both 19th Century giants of the art world, when they left behind their studios and set up their easels in the open air.
Painting nature as they saw it, with the benefit of natural light, proved a huge turning point and Turner, 1775-1851, became renowned for his light-infused landscapes and seascapes, while Constable, 1776-1837, is famous for his scenes of what we now call Constable Country, the area around his Suffolk home in Dedham Vale, with 1821’s The Hay Wain among his most famous works.
Visitors to the Laing will get to see 10 artworks by each of them plus about 40 other rarely-shown oil paintings, sketches and watercolours by some of their contemporaries, capturing the rural world, its rivers and coasts, as well as cities.
Sarah Richardson, keeper of art at the gallery, showed me around ahead of last weekend’s opening, as finishing touches were being made to the exhibition which staff started hanging on Tuesday in two upstairs gallery rooms: one painted blue - a shade “we’ve never used before” - to complement the works; the other, red - the colour used for exhibitions in the 19th Century, which artists would have had in mind as they painted.
“We’ve only had a short amount of time to get it up but there’s been a lot of pre-planning!” said Sarah, adding: “This is our most important historical exhibition for this year.
“Naturalistic landscape painting was the art movement that developed in Britain and put Britain at the centre of the European art movement.
“Constable and Turner and other artists were going out into the countryside, painting the weather and atmosphere, and they were artists admired by the Impressionists.”
Later the fluid, spontaneous nature of working “en plein air” came to characterise the style of the French impressionists but what Constable and Turner were doing at the time was ground-breaking.
There was a shift, says Sarah, that saw artists break with the tradition of travelling to Italy; one of the reasons being the growing unrest abroad and the Napoleonic Wars.
Britain and its landscape became more important to them and their focus turned to the British countryside, valued more at a time of threat and war: “The British landscape became important to people as a symbol of identity.”
Constable and Turner were are the forefront of the trend for more naturalistic painting.
Art materials were easier to transport, with the advent of paint in tubes, and oil was a popular medium “because it had more strength of colour and stronger effects” in the glare of day, whereas watercolours in our unpredictable weather would present their own problems.
Turner had his own boat and his oil sketch The Thames near Walton Bridges in 1800, on show here, is painted from it, showing a view from the very centre of the river. “There’s something semi-abstract about the light and colour,” says Sarah. “It’s everything that Turner was about.”
Also spontaneously capturing conditions on a certain day is his Hampton Court from the Thames, dated around 1806-7; another oil sketch on canvas: “He’d have his easel and a great roll of canvas and would just cut off bits,” says Sarah.
Whereas Turner’s work tended to be a more imaginative and poetic response to the colours and light he so loved - “Turner is responding a bit more to the abstract qualities of a picture”; even “showing-off” a bit - Constable “wanted to paint nature as it was”.
Often he chose to enliven the earthy hues of the landscape with a little touch of red which can be spotted in his works on show, such as in the labourer’s shirt in his Hampstead Heath with the House Called The Salt Box.
Another painting, such as Hampstead Heath 1821-22, shows the land as rough open country just three miles from London.
Constable painted his father’s mill in 1817’s Dedham Lock & Mill where he would often visit, popping outside to set up his easel, and in this speedily-captured, even unfinished painting viewers can see his brown wash over the canvas.
Constable liked to paint his skies first and in fact spent years studying them and some of his cloud studies are included here too.
There’s also his 1826 work The Sea near Brighton 1826: “You don’t think of Constable painting the sea,” remarks Sarah.
There are 61 works on show from the Tate plus one from Laing’s own collection: John Varley’s View from Polsden near Bookham in Surrey, 1800.
Among work featured by other “fresh air” artists are paintings by John Sell Cotman; Francis Danby; George Stubbs’ scenes of Newmarket and John Crome’s curious Moonrise on the Yare, all silhouette and yellow light.
The new breed of artists introduced unusual viewpoints: for instance in the 1811-12 painting of Littlehampton Pier, with its angle of coast and mundane industry, by Sir Augustus Wall Callcott, a friend of Turner’s and similarly interested in atmospheric effects.
Another, George Robert Lewis, who would stay on a farm while painting his views of the Malvern Hills at different times of day, included groups of farm workers who would not usually be featured in art.
“They’re an integral part of the landscape and this shows a more egalitarian view of the landscape, not just landowners,” says Sarah.
These sort of compositions had not been done before and the viewing public was in many ways “not ready for them”.
By the 1820s, the outdoor trend was already passing as poetic, romantic expression took hold.
“In the 1820s pictorial taste was changing. Artists were not going into the landscape so much,” says Sarah.
“But at the time they established the basis of naturalistic landscape study which was revolutionary.”
:: Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature, will run at Laing until June 29. Admission costs £7 with family tickets and concessions available.