Review – Constable, Gainsborough, Turner at Royal Academy

Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited © Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscapes boldly posits this heavyweight trio as the key proponents of a thoroughly modernising influence in landscape painting, which elevated the genre to the more ‘worthier’ ranks alongside History painting. From its basic function as background scenery or ineffectual draughtsmanship practice, the Modern mentality viewed landscapes as imbued with moral, philosophical or religious significance, reflected in works which treated the organic features enfolding the figurative inhabitants with something like awe and reverence, eventually touching the loftier concepts of the Sublime and the Beautiful.

Such is this seismic shift in approach that the RA chooses to open the exhibition with a room entirely situated in the Contemporary; a black slab of Indian black granite, Untitled (2011) by John Maine RA confronts the viewer on entry. A poem by Richard Long – the British Land Artist for whom art and nature are inextricably linked in his works – suitably encapsulates the awe that the exhibition seeks to suggest was the key factor in these painters’ new approach to landscape. A confident and bold hypothesis that is fundamentally undermined by several problems in this intense, concentrated show.

First, there are at least two rooms which function to set the scene before the three painters’ entry. Certainly there is merit in establishing the prototypes visible in the French, Italian and Dutch schools of the second half of the Eighteenth Century. Etchings after figures as diverse as Rubens and Poussin in this context convincingly set the stage for the introduction of more moralistic and dramatic treatment of the landscape. Yet this diversity, and the absence of any significant presence of the painters in question until room four, smacks of an awful reliance on ‘padding’. Similarly, room three focuses on engravings by Richard Wilson RA and Thomas Smith of Derby, expounding on the economic properties of this medium over oil painting. If the exhibition began with the Contemporary, it immediately structured its argument as one of chronological development; we were to see The Making of Landscape and how it arrived to its current incarnation. Given the range of artists on display, their sheer number, and this strange deviation into economic issues, the study felt a little grasping in its effort to trace this Modern mentality in the treatment of landscape to how it appears in Maine’s Untitled.

It was refreshing, then, to feature a room devoted to the technical appreciation of watercolour as the medium which best allowed Turner to develop these Modern expressions. Indeed, we see the established topographical tradition now imbued with a greater lyricism; there is real searching exploration through watercolour technique to communicate the reverence Turner clearly felt for the landscape. Even the presence of his fishing rod serves to demonstrate his commitment to immersing himself in nature. Perhaps this is where the exhibition is most effective in expounding on its hypothesis.

The show finally reaches its pinnacle with the entrance of major large scale paintings. Gainsborough’s Romantic Landscape (1873) is an ode to the inherent unforgiving power of nature; its awesomeness reflected in the title which dares not use a mythological or historical scene to justify its existence. Gainsborough certainly constructed the billowing trees, precarious and mighty boulders and rocks towering over the tiny figure to exaggerate their precarious potential, rather than copied studiously from a real situation, such is their imposing presence. The lighting is greatly dramatic and brooding rather than naturalistic, exaggerating dark shadows matched by suitably intense deep colour. The figure trapped below such a storm seems dwarfed, insignificant and incidental. Interestingly, I immediately thought of the apocalyptic landscapes of John Martyn as better examples of the potential power of nature, though good luck fitting these enormous canvases into the parlours of the RA.

Similarly, a trio of mezzotints after Constable’s The Lock (1834), The Rainbow, Salisbury Cathedral (1837) and The Cornfield (1834), though not the actual works themselves, accurately convey the painter’s deliberate staging and construction of the various elements comprising the image – as opposed to faithfully copying – with the similar agenda to treat the landscape as of interest in itself rather than a narrative scene.

Adjacent to these works are a series of oil studies by Turner made briefly and feverishly to capture an immediate scene; Hampstead Heath 27th September (1821) for example, of Cloudy Study, Tree at Right (1821). Returning to the technical element explored in the watercolour section, here Turner’s Modern relationship with nature is reflected in his recognition of its temporal status, its living and changing properties that emerge and vanish, and his searching for the best technical methods by which to capture it.

An admirable attempt has been made to trace chronologically the change in technique and mentality perpetrated by these three painters from which the era of Modernism would follow. It is disappointing, then, that so few examples are actually present, and even these are surrounded by thick wadding of prints and etchings that deviate from the hypothesis (did Tate Britain simply refuse to lend any of its huge repertoire of important Turners?). That the show employs a chronological method to expound on the development of landscape is fundamentally undermined by its abrupt halt immediately after the period in question; by the end there is no summary of how we have ended up with the Contemporary pieces witnessed long ago in the opening. Some mention of the natural progression into the moral concerns of the Pre-Raphaelites’ use of landscape, or even the constructed rollercoaster landscape work by John Martyn would have been welcome.