People who happened to live in or visit London during Autumn 2014 were fortunate enough to be able to see exhibitions of three remarkable masters – Rembrandt, Constable and Turner – at the National, the V & A and the Tate Galleries respectively. I went to all three and seeing them at the same time, especially the English contemporaries, Constable and Turner, gave me a deeper understanding of the work of each of them. It was clear, for example, when one looked at the late paintings that neither was very interested any more in the representational painting which both had started out by producing. This was something I had always understood about Turner, but not Constable. In both cases, failing eyesight also played a part ( as it did with Monet ).
It’s now a little more difficult to make the comparisons and juxtapositions, but it’s still possible if the determined viewer is prepared to wear out some shoe leather, for the three galleries in question still hold paintings by both Turner and Constable. At the National there is the wonderful Turner and Claude octagonal room, displaying two amazing Turners next to two Claudes, his inspiration, but also a selection of Turner’s canvases including ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ ( spot the hare ) and ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ – the latter voted the nation’s most favourite painting in a BBC poll. The National also holds ‘The Cornfield’ and ‘The Hay Wain’, among a range of other Constables, the latter a former ‘nation’s favourite painting’. Given that both painters are British this is what you would expect in a National Gallery.
It’s less well-known, however, that the V & A too has its Turners and Constables. The oil sketch for ‘The Hay Wain’ is in the V & A ( they were hung together in the 2014 exhibition so one could see just how the painting developed ) as is one of my favourite Constable paintings ‘Boat Building near Flatford Mill’ ( see above ). His ‘Dedham Lock and Mill’ and ‘Salisbury Cathedral’ can also be found here, in Room 87, together with watercolours of Stonehenge and Old Sarum. Side by side with these are a collection of Turner sea-scapes, including ‘Lifeboat and Manby Apparatus going off to a Stranded Vessel’ ( right ) in which one can see the blue distress lights being fired from the vessel in question. Constable and Turner, land and sea, old handcrafts and new, industrial age inventions, earth and water ( and light, of course, for both painters ).
There are more Constables than Turners in the V & A, but more Turners than Constables in the Tate, especially in the specially built ( and recently extended ) Clore Galleries in Tate Britain. Here are all Turner’s sketchbooks, water colours and drawings, many left, by him, to the nation, with the proviso that they should all be kept together. There are over 32,000 of them and only a small proportion are on show at any one time. One of those on permanent display is ‘The Blue Rigi’ a sublime water-colour now owned by the Tate after a public appeal ( and one of my favourites ). But Tate Britain also has its Constables, especially ‘Flatford Mill’ one of his best loved canvases. So it’s still possible, in Autumn 2015 to look at Turners and Constables side by side, though in three galleries rather than two.
Which painter do you prefer? Both came from humble beginnings, both were lionised during their life times, both fell out of fashion. Each was acutely conscious of the other. I can’t decide, I love them both and often it depends which painting I’m standing in front of at the time. Access to all this is FREE. Check out the web-sites of each gallery – the National, the V & A and the Tate Britain – for opening times.