It is no secret that I love bluebells. Every spring I take a walk in the woods to photograph these beautiful little flowers so when I was in London the other day and saw that they were already out in Hyde Park I made sure to look for them a little closer to home. It is still early for them but I was pleased with the photographs I managed to get. I shall have to return in a week or two to catch the carpets of blue when there are more flowers out.
While I was out I couldn’t resist popping down to the river to check on the tide!
And of course I had to take another landscape panorama for my portfolio.
Over the Easter break I set out early one morning to have breakfast at the beach side cafe in Brightlingsea and a walk around the promenade and marina. It was misty when I first arrived but soon cleared to reveal beautiful clear blue skies. I’ve put together a short video of some of my favourite photos from the morning.
I haven’t written a reflection recently, preferring instead to include my thoughts in my blog posts. However, as my tutor is keen for me to include my personal experiences I thought I would share with you my experiences of visiting a couple of galleries in London last week.
I have been promising to go to London and visit the galleries that hold Constable paintings for several weeks or even months now and last week was when I actually went.
I was staying in Essex and caught a train into Liverpool Street that arrived around 10:00. It was quite empty but there was a man on the seat in front of me that that kept sniffing and slurping his drink and then there was a man next to me across the aisle who was also sniffing and blowing his nose. It was a bit annoying and did make me feel a bit sick but I am a woman of patience, little did I know that this was the start of a very testing day.
On arriving at Liverpool Street I chose to get the tube over to South Kensington where I could begin at the V&A and then walk back across London to the Tate Britain and then the National Gallery. I won’t mention the large school party that tried to get on the tube and exit at the same station as me, they were only mildly frustrating as they took up the whole platform and waited on the exit stairs for everyone to gather together.
I’ve not been to the V&A before and was blown away by the scale of the museum and the size of some of the exhibits. They are beautifully laid out and there is a wonderful range of items on display. With no time to spare I headed straight for the paintings area and the two galleries that hold the Constable paintings. As far as I could tell, the two galleries that hold the Constable paintings were the only two galleries in the whole museum that were closed! Only in England does a flagship museum choose to change the lightbulbs in the middle of a busy Easter school holiday! I asked the man atop of the cherry picker if they were going to to reopen the galleries and he very politely said that they would only be an hour. Not a problem I had seen some very interesting exhibits on my way and would be pleased to go back and view them in more detail.
After pootling around the theatrical exhibit and taking in some lovely Beatrix Potter illustrated letters I went back to the painting area. The workmen were still busy and as there was a sign that said if I needed any help would I please speak to a member of staff, I spoke to a member of staff. Her initial response was “Its nothing to do with me, you need to ask the contractors!” I gave her a ‘look,’ to which she responded “Alright. I’ll go and ask them.”
It turned out that they had been asked to do another piece of work and were going to be another hour. They did concede that they would reopen the second gallery but needed to keep the first gallery closed for safety reasons. I asked the member of staff if it would be possible to let me into this first gallery for a few minutes to view Constable’s Hay Wain sketch and the Salisbury Cathedral painting for a few minutes before they began work again to which she responded “You can see them from here.” I was several metres away behind a rope and at 90 degrees to most of the paintings. I began to explain that I was only in London for the day, I wouldn’t be able to get back again for some time and that I was interested in Constable for my degree course to which she replied “There is some of his paintings in the other gallery, you can go and look in there…” By this time I was more than a bit peeved and couldn’t bring myself to give her another ‘look.’ Instead I simply pointed and said “But it is the Hay Wain sketch I particularly need to see.” She responded by helpfully pointing out “Well you’ll just have to wait then.”
I was so cheesed off at that response that I stormed out of the museum. I say that I stormed out, it is such a big museum and I didn’t know the way out. It took me about 10 or 15 minutes to finally make my dramatic exit!
I don’t really know that part of London very well but when I saw a familiar fast food logo I thought I would drown my sorrows in a burger, fries and diet coke. I dutifully queued at the quick service till only to have four or five very tall international teenage boys push in front of me. I resisted the urge to point out that that is not the way to queue and instead moved across to a ‘slow’ till.
As I had been marching down Kensington High Street I had passed Holy Trinity Church, Brompton which advertised that it had a cafe. After my burger I thought I would go back to the church and sit in the cafe while I waited for the workmen in the V&A to finish. The cafe is advertised as being open from 11:00 to 16:00 on a Thursday so I was surprised to see, after walking down quite a long drive, that there was a notice on the door saying ‘reopens at 2pm.’ Only in England would a cafe be shut at lunchtime!
It was a beautiful day and the church has a lovely garden so I consoled myself by sitting in the sun for half an hour.
Back in the V&A the workmen had gone and I was able to get a good look at the paintings but time was pressing on and although I now didn’t have time for the Tate Britain I could still visit the National Gallery if I walked quickly.
I walked down Kensington High Street, along Hyde Park and over towards Buckingham Palace, along the Mall and into Trafalgar Square.
The National Gallery was heaving and not a pleasant place to be. The final painting of the Hay Wain is there and I was interested to watch several people pointing it out and talking about it. My Mum rang me while I was in there so I tried to escape quite quickly but again couldn’t find my way out and had to ask a member of staff how to get out!
I headed back along the Embankment to Liverpool Street and as I approached I rang my brother and asked what train he planned to get home. He was already on the train, the front coach on platform 12. I had 10 minutes so I ran across the concourse to platform 12 and down all eight coaches to try and find him but he wasn’t there. I rang him again only for him to double check and let me know that he was actually on platform 11. This was not just across the platform but back up the eight coaches to the ticket barrier and then all the way down another eight coaches to the front of the next train. Just as I jumped onboard the signal went and we pulled away as I was sitting down.
I had arranged to meet someone briefly at Ipswich station to collect something before returning to Colchester and eventually home on the Clacton line. As I was at the front of the train with my brother for his stop, I was the wrong end for a quick getaway at Ipswich and found myself running along the platform, back up the eight coaches and over the bridge just as they were announcing that the next train to Colchester was the next train at platform 2. I dashed out of the station met my friend, grabbed what I needed, ran back into the station and straight onto the train.
At Colchester I was again the wrong end of the train and with just three or four minutes to spare ran back up the platform, along all eight coaches, then past the shops and onto the Clacton line train where I finally fell exhausted into a seat. Joy of Joys, when I arrived at my final station I got off the train at exactly the right place to leave the station without having to take a step further than I needed to!
Throughout this traumatic day I did in fact learn something! I was struck by Constable’s love of his local countryside and how he sketched and painted whatever was around him, wherever he was, rejecting the popular mountainous landscapes of his predecessors preferring instead to paint ordinary life. Perhaps, alongside my panoramas of Constable’s landscapes I should include a panorama of one of my local landscapes?
John Constable was born in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt on 11 June 1776, the son of Golding and Ann Constable.
Plaque at the site Constable’s childhood home.
The original house on this site was burned down some years ago.
Golding Constable inherited Flatford Mill from his Uncle, Abram Constable, who didn’t have any children of his own. The family also had a part ownership in the mill at Dedham, a family farm at the back of the house at East Bergholt, two windmills, one at East Bergholt and one at Brantham, two briggs – ships that sailed around and into the Thames Estuary, one called Telegraph and one called Balloon. They also manufactured Lighters, the name for the barges used on the Stour and other canals in East Anglia, each capable of carrying 13 tonnes and towed by Suffolk Punch horses for a distance of some 23 miles between Manningtree and Sudbury. The lighters were used for carrying grain and coal along the Stour which during this period was a busy trade route. These lighters were to feature in many of Constable’s canal scene master pieces and would have been a familiar sight in Constable’s day.
Constable’s early life he was spent around some of East Anglia’s most idyllic countryside. This was to have a lasting impression throughout his life and was to become the main subject of his most notable works of art.
Constable’s older brother, also called Golding, had special needs. Unable to take over the family business he became a gamekeeper at Bentley woods, Suffolk. He was known to be ‘a fine shot with a gun’ and would occasionally supply Constable with a ‘feathered subject’ for him to sketch.
As the next male son John Constable’s destiny to become a miller and take over the running of the family business was almost fulfilled when he started work in one of the family windmills. This gave him an appreciation of the weather and cloud formations, all important for the operation of a windmill that needed to be turned into the wind in order to operate efficiently.
The windmill itself was to provide Constable with his earliest canvas as the earliest known work of art from Constable is in fact a carving depicting a windmill which Constable scribed with a pocket knife on to one of the beams at Brantham.
Constable’s neighbour in the village was Mr John Dunthorne, the local glazier and odd job man, who was Constable’s earliest influence. He was an amateur artist who shared Constable’s passion for painting, despite their class differences, the two were to become unlikely companions.
Coming from a wealthy family who owned much of the land surrounding Flatford Mill gave Constable free access to the countryside where he and Dunthorne would go out to find suitable views to paint.
Constable’s passion for painting was further encouraged by two influential people, Sir George Beaumont, a member of the Royal Academy whose mother lived in nearby Dedham and Dr John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury who had, as part of his diocese, the small church in nearby Langham village. These influential supporters gave Constable the opportunity to be considered for entry into the Royal Academy. An artist was a relatively new occupation for a gentleman and the suggestion that Constable would like to go to the Royal Academy for training was not greeted with much enthusiasm from his father. However, Constable’s persistence prevailed and he was allowed to set off for London to join the Royal Academy in 1798/9.
Upon arrival, Constable set out what type of artist he wanted to be; he was a painter of landscapes – a subject which was not considered to be of any great value or worth at this time. To add to this burden Constable chose not just to paint any landscapes but landscapes that were meaningful to him, landscapes of his own places.
“Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil, and your picture [‘The White Horse’] is one of the strongest instance I can recollect of it.” Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable’s Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78
These subjects were to be Constable’s passion however they were not to be a source of income and he was forced to paint portraits in order to make a living as an artist, like many artists at the time. His early years at the Royal Academy were against the backdrop of the rise to fame of his almost identical contemporary, Turner, who achieved great success very early in his career, achieving full academician status soon after his arrival. Constable was to only achieve the same academician status at the age of 50 years and only then did he get admitted by 1 single vote. His ambition to achieve recognition in Britain was to be the driving force of his artistic career.
Each year Constable had the opportunity to exhibit his most valued works at the annual Summer Exhibition. The first of his so called 6ft canal scenes depicted a white horse on the bough of a lighter, yards from the family mill. The subject of local working class lightermen, farm buildings and cattle was unique and revolutionary for the time and it would take the British public a number of years to fully appreciate them. This scene, painted in 1819, entitled the White Horse was to become the first of a series of canal scene paintings that are known as the constable 6fters.
So in Constable’s time the Summer Exhibition was at Somerset House in rooms which today form the Courtauld Gallery. With space at a premium (every inch of wall space was covered with paintings) Constable realised that he had an additional challenge. With so many artists painting portraits and, naturally in a portrait aspect, when Constable arrived with a 6ft landscape painting it was hard to place his works alongside the others as it would be disruptive to the symmetry of the display. As such his paintings would often be positioned by the hanging committee in the less desirable ante-room, a smaller room which led off of the great room where the most prized positions were. This would cause him great anxiety and was to influence him to paint a number of landscapes in an upright portrait format later in his career, e.g The Lock, The Cornfield.
Another influence on Constable’s art was his personal life and the beautiful Maria (pronounced Mariah) Elizabeth Bicknell.
Constable was known as the handsome miller and is known to have wandered around the area in a white coat which was ‘quite becoming of him.’ On one occasion Ann Taylor, who composed Twinkle Twinkle little star, went to visit him with her sisters. His mother is said to have asked them “Do you want to go up and see him one at a time, or en masse?”
But it was Maria who stole Constable’s heart. Although 12 years his junior, Maria would often stay with her grandfather, Dr Rudd and it was at the local church, just along the road where Constable lived that they first met. They had an on off relationship for a number of years, restrained due to her families disapproval as a struggling artist was not the upper class man they had hoped for their daughter. The Bicknall’s were lawyers to the admiralty and moved in circles with royalty. Despite the Constable’s relative wealth their standing in society was not quite up to the same level.
The Bicknell Family were tolerant of Constable’s interest in Maria to begin with however when it became clear, after a number of years that things were a little more serious, the immediate family and to a greater extent Dr Rudd, played a more decisive role in influencing the course of true love. It culminated in Dr Rudd threatening to cut Maria out of his will with an ultimatum that she was to cut off all ties with Constable. Despite clear mutual affection Maria, while staying with her half-sister Sarah Skey in Worcester, wrote to Constable to end all ties, telling him not to contact her, speak to her and that “We both must be realistic,” putting the cause of the break-up down to “cold hard cash, something that neither of us have.”
Constable received the letter while in bed with flu, broken-hearted, he took a carriage to Worcester where he requested an audience with Maria. His gamble paid off, supported no doubt by Sarah Skey’s fondness of him and Maria relented and they decided that no matter what, they would indeed get married with or without the family’s blessing.
Maria though, was in constant poor health. Constable’s subjects of Hampstead Heath and Brighten are largely due to the doctors at the time recommending Maria take country and sea air. Her poor health was not helped by giving birth to seven children. Eventually Maria succumbed to tuberculosis in 1828, just 12 years after they were married. Although short, Constable’s marriage to Maria was a happy one and it is during this period that some of Constable’s greatest works were produced, including The Hay Wain and The Cornfield.
A year after Maria’s death Constable finally achieved full academician status at the Royal Academy, an honour that grieved him as Maria was not there to share the success with him. Constable’s paintings after this take a noteable turn in direction with rainbows featuring and stormy skies becoming more prevalent. Constable’s dearest friend Rev John Fisher also passed away around this time adding to Constable’s gloom.
In 1821 Constable planned to exhibit a scene of Waterloo Bridge at the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition, a subject quite different from his typical chosen landscapes, upon showing this to Joseph Farington, an influential member of the Royal Academy, Constable was persuaded to continue with his canal scenes. Valuing Farington’s opinion highly Constable set off immediately to begin a new canal scene. With limited time Constable had to set to work with great haste in order to complete the picture which he exhibited under the title Landscape Noon, a picture that was later to be referred to as The Hay Wain. The Hay Wain was received positively at the Royal Academy but it was not until 1824 when a French dealer took the painting together with two others (View on the Stour near Dedham and Yarmouth Pier) to Paris to be exhibited at the Paris Salon – the French equivalent of the Royal Academy. With Britain having been at war with France over the preceding years the French were startled to see the style and subject of this most English painter. The stark contrast of Constable’s works against the classic French works was significant enough to receive the Gold Medal from Charles X. Constable had wowed France and received the highest accolade from them. This recognition however gave little comfort to Constable who still continued to doubt his abilities based on his persistent desire to achieve fame in his home country. Constable would not even travel to France to collect the medal.
Constable went on to lecture at the Royal Academy and died in 1837 at the age of 61 from heart failure.
Anthony Bailey, A Kingdom of His Own
Constable in Love, Martin Gayford
Constable Letters, Suffolk Record Society, edited by Beckett
Memoirs of John Constable, Robert Leslie
Thank you too to Mark Cable, National Trust Guide at Flatford, Suffolk.
It was far too dull and overcast in Flatford this weekend for me to take the shots I needed for my Final Major Project so instead I tagged along on one of the guided tours, learning about Constable and taking a few photos as I went.
Firstly these are a few photos of Flatford Mill, the visitor’s centre and Valley Farm. I took all of these photographs with a 50mm prime lens which gives roughly a view the width that you might see with your eye.
Like with my panoramas, I have converted the photographs to black and white to give them a timeless feel that reflects the timelessness of the scenery and I have boosted the contrast to give them a stronger, tougher, more industrial feel that matches the weather and the fact that these were once industrial buildings.
I also took a few photos of Mark, the National Trust tour guide and the party of Londoners that he was showing around. It was a blustery day, the wind had a nasty bite to it and at the beginning of the tour the party looked cold, fed up and really not very interested but despite this being the first tour of the season our guide’s passion had everyone hooked. We soon forgot about the cold and were gripped by the rebellious young Constable who shunned his father’s business in order to become a painter and also the love story of Constable and his wife Maria Elizabeth Bicknell which led to a dramatic transformation in painting style after Maria died.
Here I have left the photos in colour so that I can experiment with a new Lightroom plug-in by Athentech called Perfect Exposure that was recommended on the Photofocus blog. Although exposure can be tweaked in Lightroom, the blog claims that Perfect Exposure can do it better and in just one click. I’m pleased with the results and it is very straight forward to use although when you have a batch of photos you need to export them to Perfect Exposure before making that ‘one click’ so I’m not sure that the claim of ease and speed is quite as suggested!
Mark Cable Tour Guide for the National Trust at Flatford
Talking about Constable’s Flatford Mill painting
Talking about Constable’s Boat Building Painting and how the dry dock works
Talking about the Hay Wain in front of Willy Lott’s Cottage
Finally, because it is Easter and supposed to be the beginning of Spring I took a few photos of the season. Although not directly related to my Final Major Project, Constable would have sketched details like this before including them in a larger image.
At the weekend I dropped in at the Photography Show at Birmingham NEC where I went along to a seminar by Hugh Hastings about landscape photography.
Hastings has an impressive resume including being an official photographer for Chelsea Football Club for more than 10 years. He mentioned a number of projects he has worked on including photographing the people he met in hospital when he had an operation, creating badges of a deceased relative for their funeral and giving single use cameras to the homeless.
He has a real affinity with the outdoors having been inspired by the photographs on Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother LP. Although most of his work these days is architectural he believes them to be landscapes with building (or rooms) in them.
He is a Leica ambassador, shoots solely with Leica cameras and travels around giving talks on behalf of Leica. He said that we would pay for a Leica, financially and physically, through lugging it around, but that its quality was unsurpassed.
He has released a number of books and is currently working with a publisher on a book of photos of Cornwall for which he requires around 300 photographs. The publisher, Ron Johns of Mabecron Books, would like traditional blue sky, postcard images but Hastings has other ideas. He wants to find some some new angles and is negotiating with the publisher about what he can do. For example he showed us an image of St Michaels Mount taken with a long lens from a distance, at sunset. Although this particular image is a little too abstract for the publisher, these lesser seen views are what he wants to take. Now he is simply using a 30-90mm lens so that the photograph will portray what you might see with the naked eye.
Hastings urged us to check out lay-bys! He showed us an view of daffodil fields that he came across after parking in a lay-by and walking just a few yards.
We were also urged to consider health and safety. Hastings had a piece of rope with a carabiner clip attached to the end which enables him to hook onto something and lean out when photographing cliffs or steps and get that angle that others can’t.
When photographing the sea, Hastings says that he could take the traditional 15sec exposures but would rather see gritty photos that show the water as it really is. He likes to take photos on 50/50 days when there is both sun and cloud as he says the clouds give interest to the image. He mentioned Kilian Schoenberger as further inspiration for his work.
When asked about how much post production he does he explained that he turns down the contrast in the camera so that the image is very flat. This gives him the opportunity to increase the contrast in post production. He usually shoots jpeg images as the quality of the jpegs from the Leica camera he uses is better than any RAW conversion he has seen. He will shoot RAW images at night though where there is some uncertainty about the final image. He does add a small amount of HDR effect using Aurora software.
Hastings said that he likes to see people in his landscapes telling us that he is inspired by Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Casper David Freidrich. It gives a sense of scale and introduces something new and different to the landscape.
Finally Hastings urged us to get out there and take photos of the landscape as it is changing so quickly. Solar and wind farms are appearing at an incredible rate and we need to record what is unspoilt so far. To help us, he recommended an app called PhotoPills that helps you plan any photoshoot, anywhere, giving information about where the sun or moon is, depth of field, exposure and location tracking.