Opinion

Art must not be the only way our children enjoy the natural world

The COP conference and a visit to a Constable exhibition has Big Issue founder John Bird thinking of the natural world.

John Constable, The Leaping Horse, 1825. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

Perhaps it was not an entirely good idea to go from COP26 one day to an art exhibition the next day and not realise that it might influence my viewing pleasure. The exhibition was ‘Late Constable’ at the Royal Academy in London’s West End and I had loved the works of John Constable (1776-1837) since I discovered him when I was a ‘locked up’, aspiring boy painter. I preferred him to all other English painters so I looked forward to the RA exhibition with great expectations. I was not disappointed but found my mind wandering away to the climate crisis that had been the theme of the immense Glasgow conference. 

Unlike his rival competitor and contemporary JMW Turner, he was not given to painting the ‘satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution. Turner’s Coalbrookdale, for instance – a kind of heroic celebration of iron smelting and the new mining and engineering – had no pull for Constable, who largely stuck to subjects around his Suffolk countryside. If there is any technological innovation in Constable it is that of the earlier agricultural revolution – and not even much of that – with barges on rivers and canals. Constable is therefore not drawn to showing the enormous change that was overtaking England as mines and mills, factories and shipyards were thrown up to create the vast prosperity of the later Victorian world. The pompous empire that girdled the earth and created our globalised world. 

Turner loved all that stuff: for instance, his later Rain, Steam and Speed showed this new world of railways that leads directly – as my COP26-informed eye noted – to the current climate malaise. Constable stuck with nature and the slow rhythm of country life, turning his back to some extent on all the heavy stuff that was being done to create the vast wealth of Great Britain Inc. Although he was advantaged by the increase in wealth among patrons who bought his stuff, in the same way that authors like Dickens were advantaged by a reading public with more leisure time to read, Constable hardly referred to this new world order. 

As a lover of Constable who first discovered the large collection in the Victorian and Albert museum as a 16-year-old paint-spattered inmate on ‘home leave’, I approached the RA show with reverence. I was not disappointed but I had been captured by climate and fires, by the pollution created by the gross pursuit of profits, and by an awareness that Constable represented halcyon days long since trashed by consumerism. 

That’s not to say that I looked at every tree, every brook or working horse captured by Constable as the signifier of a vanished world. But I was probably more than usually aware of the tinderbox nature of our current world. And that Constable had caught something that was almost the closing moments of a long drama finally playing out in our current climate chaos. 

Aside from the above, I looked at something I had not quite understood about Constable in my past visits to exhibitions and galleries that held his work. And that is the role played by debris and decay. Not all of his work shows bright green, fecund nature: we see also bits of rotting matter, discoloured and withering weeds and flowers, leaves dumped in an autumn downfall, the seasons mixed up in a kind of gravy of everyday country life. 

Perhaps COP26 got me looking more carefully at the natural debris, and falling in love with it, possibly knowing that that it was not thrown up by some mechanical extraction that piled up spent shit to pollute our variegated world.  

But it is not necessary to visit this wonderful exhibition and feel weighed down by my vision. It works as a collection of great paintings from Constable’s later years, with a number of Hadleigh Castle studies that show how Constable really grasped nature at its fluid best: clouds rushing, water running and winds seeming to stir everything up. It is one of my favourite paintings by Constable and you can usually see it in the permanent collection at Tate Britain. 

Constable’s studies of clouds in a number of water and oil sketches show him as almost scientific in his exactness, and they are well represented in this exhibition.  

Whilst in Edinburgh I visited the National Gallery of Scotland to see my favourite of all Constable paintings. Called Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, I have written about it, and my attempt to see it, before. I first saw it when it was in Edinburgh some years ago. But as it was bought by a number of the British galleries that it moves around and I’ve followed it as it exited to somewhere else. This time, at the Scottish National Gallery, I had just missed it as it buzzed off for a show in China.  

But the RA exhibition has a fine little study of the painting which I had never seen before and it filled me with joy to peruse it at last.  

This exhibition is brilliant, though it has the shadows of Constable’s life hidden among its green fields and fine clouds. Unlike Turner, much loved by the Royal Academicians for his incredible facility and dexterity with the brush, leading to him being made a member of the RA at 26, Constable had to wait until he was 52 for the same honour. The tragedy being that Constable’s beloved wife had died before finally he was anointed with the appellation of a serious and major artist. Membership of the Royal Academy was essential if you wanted to be accepted as a painter and poor old Constable had to put up with finally getting it by only one vote. Constable, though, has proved in time to be the greater artist, in my humble opinion. Showing a vast world of nature that is so beautifully fecund and rich, and real. 

I recommend you visit Late Constable, which shows how he grasped nature and all of its debris, the rotting and decay that were of course the precursor to re-enriching the earth with the greens of new fecundity. Out of death comes new life; alas we cannot say that about our industrial, effluent-strewn world. Hence COP26 needs to open our eyes completely. And get us thinking and fighting. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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