A terrific stag-weekend in Brighton; ‘the most grand and affecting landscape in the world’ and a new sketch by John Constable

Last Saturday one of my oldest friends was down in Brighton for his stag-weekend. For the afternoon the Best Man took us on a very civilised and beautiful walk round Devil’s Dyke. Zak and I have been there many times, but we haven’t done that exact walk before, and there was a lot of new stuff to see. Down in the Dyke itself there are two low mounds, invisible from up above where we walk the dog. These are called the ‘Devil’s Graves’ and they are the remains of two long barrows. That was very exciting.

Partway we were wondering which was the view made famous by John Constable. William Feaver quotes the painter’s letter to his friend Archdeacon John Fisher:

Tuesday August 24 1824 turned out to be a fine day. So, for a change from what Brighton had to offer (“nothing here for a painter but the breakers – and sky”), John Constable took his ailing wife Maria up on to the South Downs.

“We went to the dyke,” he told his friend Fisher, “which is, in fact, Roman remains of an embankment, over-looking perhaps the most grand and affecting natural landscape in the world – and consequently a scene the most unfit for a picture.”

John Fisher, archdeacon of Berkshire but destined to be remembered as Constable’s loyal sounding board and confidant, was used to slighting turns of phrase. Every communication brought sarcastic thrusts; news of the family and of paintings in progress would veer off into waspishness and sudden maxims. Indeed, this particular letter yielded a remark so telling that the archdeacon could have composed a sermon from it: “It is the business of a painter not to contend with nature and put this scene [a valley filled with imagery 50 miles long] on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost of necessity become poetical.”

I hadn’t realised that there is only one surviving landscape study of Devil’s Dyke by Constable, a pencil sketch looking over a hedge that William Feaver describes as ‘perfunctory.’ Looking at a photo like this one from the Telegraph

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(c) Daily Telegraph

you might be surprised that Constable didn’t make more of it, but Devil’s Dyke in those days was a destinational beauty spot. Later it would be linked to Brighton by a branch-line and a cliff railway, but even in Constable’s day it was extremely busy. The Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery has an image of a painting, dated 1835 and previously attributed to Constable, showing huge crowds of people on the Dyke like a race meeting. A colleague at work told me that the train stopped running to Devil’s Dyke in the 1930s. The cliff railway line is now just a groove in the hillside, and the station has disappeared under a wood below, so Devil’s Dyke is a more beautiful place in the 21st Century than when Constable saw it. The Best Man said that the curving hills reminded him of the walls of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. One google-search later I saw what he meant. There is a sense at the Dyke of standing on the ramparts of an ancient citadel – which you are of course, as it was used as a hill-fort.

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Constable can be forgiven for being in a bad mood at Brighton. He never liked the town – ‘Piccadilly on sea’ – and only went there for his wife’s health. Maria Constable was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1824, and from then until her death four years later the Constable family took rest-holidays in Brighton for the healthy sea air. Most of Constable’s paintings of Brighton are grimly overcast. To a local these grey-brown beachscapes are beautifully evocative and exactly right – unmistakably Brighton – but their mood reflects Constable’s unhappiness at the time.

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(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

One of them, this oil sketch, Brighton Beach June 12th 1824, is the poster image for a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Constable The Making of a Master’ 20th September 2014 – 11th January 2015. The exhibition traces Constable’s development as a painter, and how he used his study of the Old Masters to create a new natural English landscape style. I look forward to seeing it.

They were saying on the radio the other day that the V and A have discovered a new sketch on the back of one of his known paintings. This article in the Daily Mail says that conservators noticed that the relining was loose on Constable’s Sketch of the Branch Hill Pond at Hampstead 1821. They knew from a previous x-ray that there was another image underneath, but they had assumed that the first painting had been overpainted by the second, rather than surviving intact on the other side of the canvas. Here is the newly-discovered study, which shows a brick-kiln on Hampstead Heath. It is painted on one of the typical scraps of canvas that Constable would use for his open-air oil sketches, cut and shaped by him so that they would fit inside the lid of his paintbox, which he rested on his knees as an improvised easel.

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The better-known painting, Branch Hill Pond, could easily be a view on the Downs with one of the traditional man-made cattle ponds, called dew-ponds.

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It’s interesting to imagine the sort of views that Constable might have painted on the Downs at Devil’s Dyke

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(c) Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian

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(c) David Moyes Sunset After Cloudburst on Devil’s Dyke

but I think the Groom was spot on when he said the view reminded him of something out of Rupert Bear.

1962 AE Bestall

Alfred Bestall, Nutwood Hills 1962 (c) Estate of Alfred Bestall

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