Sunday, June 9, 2013

Constable's "Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows"--"Dangers Past"?

Richard Cork writes about John Constable's 1829 painting of "Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows" in this weekend's The Wall Street Journal:

Widely admired by John Constable's friends as his finest painting, "Salisbury Cathedral From the Meadows" has now been saved for the U.K., bought from the children of the late Barclays Bank director Lord Ashton of Hyde. The price with tax concessions amounts to £23.1 million ($35.5 million), and the rescue package includes £15.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This dramatic canvas, now on view at Tate Britain, will travel among several major museums across the U.K.

Unlike Constable's spirited little oil sketches, the Salisbury Cathedral painting is a large, carefully designed and vigorously handled canvas he worked on for several years. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, it was accompanied by a quotation from James Thomson's poem "Summer," which refers to a "danger past" before describing how "a glittering robe of joy…invests the fields and nature smiles revived." Yet the painting is far from joyful; it is one of Constable's most turbulent images. . . .

Devoted to the Anglican Church, Constable was worried about its future. So Salisbury Cathedral is not allowed to dominate this painting in a smug, triumphant way. The largest form confronting us here is the ancient tree on the left, and it seems shaken by the impact of the storm. It may even be in danger of falling into the impenetrable darkness beyond, where a small church tower and houses look threatened by the black sky.

No wonder the dog isolated in the muddy foreground stares back at this tree. It must be wondering where the storm will strike next. Lightning flashes to the left of the cathedral spire, and the man in the wooden cart looks hunched, as if bracing himself for another apocalyptic downpour. The three horses pulling his cart through the water appear burdened by their task. Directly behind the cart, a tiny cottage is being smothered by a tangle of foliage growing over its vulnerable white wall and orange roof. As for the withered stump of a willow on the far right, it is perilously close to the water's edge.

And what were the dangers faced by the Anglican Church in 1829, that Constable should depict such a great Gothic cathedral under a cloud? Catholic Emancipation, of course. Compare the 1829 image of the cathedral (at the WSJ site) to this 1825 view, in which the cathedral is much more substantial (even though the cows in the foreground are a little distracting):

This painting of "Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds", features the current Bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher and his wife on the left--the bishop commissioned the painting and then requested a copy with a brighter sky behind the cathedral.


  1. The painting is really amazingly done. What's more interesting is the back story and subtle meanings behind the picture. I've dabbled with art here and there and I've never been to the level where I had purpose behind my work. It's always been just trying to capture the image itself. So I envy talent this good that can paint meaning into imagery.

  2. Thanks for the comment--Constable's emphasis on capturing clouds, so evanescent and changeable, is just one of the amazing aspects of both of these paintings of Salisbury Cathedral!

  3. His worry about the Anglican church was apt--look where it is now. That's what struck me most when I saw the painting in WSJ.