John Constable R.A. (Suffolk 1776-1837 Hampstead) A Sea Beach - Brighton

Stormy weather

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 8

Stormy weather

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 8

Stormy weather

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 8

At first, Constable hated Brighton. Forced to go there for his ailing wife's health, he painted tempests that reflected the tumult in his life, says Martin Gayford

John Constable's first impressions of Brighton were not positive. He described the resort to his friend John Fisher in August 1824, in an outpouring of comically exaggerated disgust. "Brighton", he began, "is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London." There, he went on, the "magnificence" of the sea was drowned in a din of human tumult.

Constable (1776-1837) listed the teeming visitors with Dickensian relish, including "ladies dressed & undressed – gentlemen in morning gowns & slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers". Apart from traffic jams of coaches and gigs, the place also abounded in "footmen, children, nursery maids, dogs, boys ... rotten fish & those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women, whose language both in oaths & voice resembles men", all of these mingled "in endless & indecent confusion". To summarize, the town was nothing less than Piccadilly "by the sea-side", and there was nothing in the chaotic scene for a painter, "but the breakers – & sky – which have been lovely indeed and always varying".

Those perennial marine themes – the waves and the ever-changing cloudscape – were the subject of the works he did at Brighton over the following years. In that respect, his oil A Sea Beach - Brighton, offered in Bonhams Old Master Paintings sale in New Bond Street, is simultaneously typical and slightly uncharacteristic. The unusual aspect is the weather. Often in Constable's Brighton pictures the sky is blue: here the waves are surging in, spray flying, the atmosphere overcast and almost merging with the waters. It looks as if the wind is high; the fishing boats – which Constable grudgingly conceded to Fisher were "picturesque" – are pulled up on the beach. The tempest might reflect a crisis in the artist's life.

Constable's visits to Brighton were bound up with the health of his wife Maria who suffered – as did her mother and siblings – from tuberculosis. In the early months of 1824 her health, further undermined by a succession of pregnancies, was failing. On 8th May, Constable reported, "This warm weather has hurt her a good deal and we are told we must try the sea." So in a few days he was going to send Maria and the children to the coast.

They chose Brighton, as Constable explained on a later occasion, because that resort was "cheaper than any other – it is near – and we have several friends there". There was a good coach service from London, where the Constables lived in Charlotte Street, enabling the painter to pop down to see his family and back to his studio, according to his mood and how his work was going. Although Constable's first visit was in 1824, Maria had been to Brighton several times before their marriage and her father had several acquaintances there since he was, for many years, the man of business to the Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and since 1820 King George IV, whose romantic interest in Brighton was the reason that this resort had become extremely fashionable. John Nash's alterations to the Marine Pavilion were completed in 1822, the Chain Pier opened in 1823: when Constable arrived, the vogue for Brighton was at its height.

Predictably, Constable – who had an aversion to urban bustle, though he spent most of his professional life in London – took against the crowds (though he probably exaggerated his reaction for Fisher's amusement). Over time, however, he warmed to the place. Maria and the children returned in the autumn of 1825, for the sake of the oldest, John Charles. After a week at the seaside, Constable reported the boy was "certainly better, & he is now fond of bathing which we are told will help him".

For his part, Constable had got into the habit of making oil sketches on the beach, "in the lid of my box on my knees". He sent a dozen of these to the Fishers in Salisbury, in the hope that "perhaps the sight of the sea may cheer Mrs F", who was also in poor health. And, probably in 1825, he handed over a Brighton sketchbook to a young French painter and enthusiastic admirer of Constable's work who came to visit with a letter of recommendation from Constable's Parisian dealer. Later, the Frenchman, whose name was Eugène Delacroix, also drew countryside, dogs and trees in the little brown leather-bound volume. It is almost a collaboration over time between these great artists.

Brighton came to occupy its own niche among Constable's subjects – all of them places to which he was attached by feelings, relationships and memories. Most important, of course, was East Bergholt, on the Essex/Suffolk border, where he was born and grew up. Salisbury was the home of Fisher, his closest friend, who was Archdeacon of Berkshire, and of Fisher's uncle, the Bishop of Salisbury. The Constables spent much time in Hampstead because, like the coast, it was an escape from the polluted atmosphere of London, which irritated Maria's weak lungs.

Eventually, Brighton provided the material for one of Constable's so-called 'six-footers' (his major compositions): Chain Pier, Brighton, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1827. He also chose a scene on the beach as the basis for the plate A Sea-Beach - Brighton in his series English Landscape Scenery (made in collaboration with the engraver David Lucas). The oil, A Sea Beach - Brighton, is a variant of this composition.

For the mezzotint, around 1834, Constable drafted a text that is far more lyrical in its appreciation of the local landscape than his satirical letter to Fisher. "Of all the works of the Creation," he pronounced, "none is so imposing as the Ocean; nor does Nature anywhere present a scene that is more exhilarating than a sea-beach." This view, he continued, was intended to show, "one of those animated days when the masses of clouds, agitated and torn, are passing rapidly; the wind at the same time meeting with a certain set of the tide, causes the sea to rise and swell with great animation. A large wave, on nearing the shore ... curls over, then in the elegant form of an alcove suddenly falling on the beach, it spreads itself and retires." In such weather, Constable added, "the voice of the solitary sea-bird is heard from time to time" (as an accomplished amateur musician, he was extremely sensitive to the sounds of the landscape). However, A Sea Beach - Brighton is more somber and stormier than either other similar paintings – such as the one in Detroit – or the mezzotint.

Technical features of A Sea Beach - Brighton, such as its pale pink priming, suggest a date in the late 1820s. The Constable expert Anne Lyles speculates that it might date from 1828-30, suggesting that it either belongs to the period of Maria's last illness, or might even have been done after her death. It is not hard to believe, looking at this painting, that it was made at a time of tribulation and mourning.

The Constables' final visit to the coast was in the summer of 1828. "My wife is sadly ill at Brighton," Constable wrote in June; so, too, was their young son Alfred. Maria died on 23rd November of that year, darkening the artist's life. "The face of the world is totally changed to me," he wrote a few days after her death, "I shall never feel again as I have felt."

Martin Gayford is author of Constable in Love. His most recent book is Michaelangelo: His Epic Life (2013).

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