Last year I visited the exhibition of work by J M W Turner at Petworth House, and came away feeling just a little bit disappointed. This year Petworth have a small exhibition of sketches and drawings made by Turner’s great contemporary, and probably the best-known British landscape painter John Constable.
Constable was not a regular visitor to Petworth, nor indeed was he fortunate enough to have the 3rd Earl of Egremont as his patron (unlike Turner). he did however, make 3 visits to Petworth, two short visits lasting about a day each and a longer sojourn lasting just over a fortnight; and interestingly this was a longer period of time spent there in one visit than any of those made by Turner. Despite all this, the art collection at Petworth House does not include any work by Constable. It is possible that one reason for this is that Constable’s manner of landscape painting was too naturalistic and radical for the taste of the major collectors of the day. Indeed, much of Constable’s patronage came from middle-class collectors including Robert Vernon and John Sheepshanks whose collections can be found today at Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Cowdray House 1834, pencil and watercolour
All the works on show are from Constable’s sketchbooks and feature views of Petworth and the surrounding area. A combination of detailed and very precise pencil drawings, moody oil studies and airy watercolour sketches line the walls of the Contemporary Gallery room housed in the Servants Quarters at Petworth. My particular favourites are Bignor Park Looking Towards Petworth, a watercolour sketch and the earliest dated drawing from his visits made in 1834. Cowdray House a pencil and watercolour sketch shows the forbidding ruins of old Cowdray House (which was destroyed by fire in 1793) and was of great interest to Constable who was a keen historian and antiquarian. Fittleworth Mill executed a few days later is the most accomplished work, completed entirely in watercolour, it is a masterpiece and seems a shame that it was never worked up into a large-scale work.
Fittleworth Mill, Watercolour sketch 1834
Being a sucker for a romantic tale attached to something, my favourite drawing is a small pencil study of “Wicked Hammond’s House” made on the 25th September 1834, now in the collection of the V&A. The exhibition catalogue tells of how Constable made the drawing while on a joint sketching excursion with Charles Robert Leslie, that Leslie records the excursion as follows: “I recollect spending a morning with him, he drawing the outside while I was sketching the interior, of a lonely farmhouse which was the more picturesque from its being in a neglected state, and which a woman we found in it told us was called ‘wicked Hammond’s house’: a man of that name, strongly suspected of great crimes, having formerly been it’s occupant. She told us that in an old well in the garden some bones had not long ago been found, which the ‘doctor said were the arm bones of a Christian‘. (Constable at Petworth; Loukes, A; 2014, National Trust Catalogue). Stories like this are just fabulous and really give life to a picture!
Wicked Hammond’s House, pencil study 1834
I enjoyed this exhibition far more than the Turner show from last year simply because all the work was directly relevant and local to Petworth and the surrounding area. The exhibition Constable at Petworth is open now until 14th March 2014 at Petworth House, West Sussex. Booking is essential at a cost of £12 including NT member via the NT website.
(All images from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition available from Petworth House at a cost of £5.)