Teachers' resource: Constable
This resource introduces teachers to the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of works by John Constable, providing a unique opportunity to look at the artistic process from sketch through to finished work. The suggested activities are aimed at supporting teaching and learning in Art & Design at Key Stages 2, 3, 4 and 5. They focus on visual analysis through discussion and drawing in the galleries and Print Study Rooms. The gallery activities can be carried out sequentially, progressing from composition to tone and colour, or as stand-alone tasks. These include:
- Constable's Drawings
- Analysing Composition
Also provided is a brief biography of Constable, further reading and links and details of the V&A's Constable Resource Box.
Pre-prepared Resource Boxes are kept in the Print Study Rooms. They contain original, unglazed drawings and can be viewed by groups of 12 students at a time, with an accompanying teacher.
Constable in context
Below are listed some topics for discussion and investigation, either before or after your visit to the V&A, that will give a wider context for a study of Constable:
Feelings in art
The artistic process
Constable's paintings as historical sources
Constable's widespread popularity (reproductions on biscuit tins etc)
The V&A's Constable collection
The first director of the V&A, Sir Henry Cole, recorded in his diary on 31 July 1856 that the collector John Sheepshanks had offered his collection to the nation. Sheepshanks's collection comprised 234 paintings, almost all by modern British artists, and included six by Constable, most notably the famous Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds (currently on display in the British Galleries, Room 120, Level 4).
However, the V&A's most important Constable acquisitions came from the artist's last surviving child, his daughter Isabel, who had inherited and cherished the main part of the family collection. She wrote that she would present to the museum 'some landscape sketches by J Constable…they can be put in a box quite ready for removal'.
There were in fact no less than 390 paintings and drawings, in oil, watercolour, pen and pencil.
The Paintings galleries (Rooms 81, 82, 87 and 88) on Level 3 show a selection of works by Constable, including the full-scale study for 'The Hay Wain' and a number of oil sketches.
Although always associated with Suffolk, Constable, like most professional artists of his time, needed a base in London to negotiate with prospective buyers. In 1816 he married Maria Bicknell and the following year he established a home in Bloomsbury. But Constable did not enjoy living in central London, so in 1819 the family moved to the first of a series of houses in Hampstead, which was then outside the city.
Constable's biographer, C R Leslie, wrote that the life work of Constable was 'a history of his affections'. Constable himself wrote that painting 'is with me but another word for feeling'. There is no doubt that Constable had a nostalgic attachment to the countryside of his boyhood - the Suffolk villages of East Bergholt, Dedham, Stratford St Mary and Langham - and perhaps especially the views of the River Stour. In addition, he frequently painted other subjects with personal significance, like Hampstead and Salisbury, where his closest friend John Fisher, nephew of the Bishop of Salisbury, lived.
Constable's art was quite different to the 'Grand Manner' paintings that were popular at the time. These depicted mythological and biblical subjects set in impossibly idyllic landscapes. Yet, Constable's paintings are just as much 'idylls', removed as they are from the reality of industrialisation and changing industrial practices. His decision not to follow prevailing artistic norms meant that Constable had little success for many years and was not elected a full Royal Academician until 1829, at the late age of 54 (Turner, his great rival, was elected at 26). He is now recognised as one of the most important artists of the Romantic movement, which emphasised emotion and a sense of the power of nature. Constable himself was deeply religious and viewed landscape as 'God's own work'.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began
So is it now I am a man
So be it when I shall grow old…
The child is father of the man…
To the Romantics, the rainbow seemed the ultimate image of everything in life that was beautiful but transitory, visible but intangible. Constable himself wrote: 'Nature in all the varied aspects of her beauty exhibits no feature more lovely nor any that awakens a more soothing reflection than the rainbow'.
Activity: Constable's drawings
Today we value Constable's pencil, pen, watercolour and oil sketches for their freshness and vitality. However, at the time when he was working, the public expected a highly polished oil painting, executed in the studio not in the open air. Constable did not find the production of these finished paintings easy, which probably contributed to his late recognition by the art establishment.
The first stage of Constable's work was usually done outdoors, in a sketchbook. These sketchbooks were his storehouse of images, and he referred to the 1813 and 1814 sketchbooks of Suffolk scenes for the rest of his life. Often he made a sketch for its own sake, with no finished painting in mind.
At the V&A
Look at the Constable drawings in the Constable Resource Box in the Print Study Rooms (this must be pre-booked before you visit).
If you compare the chalk sketch of Salisbury Cathedral on the left to the final painting on the right, you can see that Constable removed the large tree to reveal more of the cathedral itself.
You can ask the Print Room staff to set out the drawings from the Resource Box in chronological order, so the students can see how they changed as Constable developed as an artist. It is particularly interesting to compare similar subjects in drawings of different periods. Ask students to focus on formal elements such as the use of line and tone, as well as the kind of atmosphere the drawing creates. Look also at the effects created by different drawing materials.
Your students can also look at high quality replicas of Constable's pocket sketchbooks owned by the V&A (the originals are unfortunately too fragile to be viewed). They are wonderful to handle and give students a sense of how Constable's sketchbooks were a kind of visual diary. You will find them in the Resource Box. The drawings and sketchbooks give a clear indication of Constable's main interests in terms of subject matter. Ask students what they found out about the artist from looking at them. What do they think he was most interested in? What did he draw only rarely, if at all?
Back at school
On the back the 'Study of Clouds' oil painting on the right, Constable wrote 'Sepr.5.1822. looking SE noon. Wind very brisk & effect bright and fresh. Clouds moving very fast. with occasional very bright openings to the blue.'
Your students could make their own visual 'weather diary', recording skyscapes at regular intervals and making notes of wind, rain, sunshine and temperature. Constable often did this on his sketches of clouds and skyscapes.
When you go to the gallery, show students the cloud study and oil sketches.
Activity: analysing composition
A concern of any landscape painter is composition. Constable did not simply record exactly what was in front of him. He rearranged it subtly to fit a predetermined pattern. He often had in mind an underlying geometric arrangement in which the picture plane was divided into sections - perhaps quarters or thirds - vertically and/or horizontally. He then might place significant elements on the central vertical line, for example the church in Dedham Lock and Mill.
Constable was also fond of diagonals, especially in the lower part of a picture. In Dedham Lock and Mill, the boat on the left and the top of the post and base of the tree trunk on the right connect diagonally with the centre point on the horizon.
At the V&AYou could give your students photocopies of Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds, The Valley of the Stour, with Dedham in the Distance and the full-scale study for The Hay Wain. Ask them to look at the corresponding paintings in the Paintings galleries (Level 3, Rooms 81, 82, 87 and 88) and mark on the photocopies the main compositional lines with a black biro or pen. Show them the diagram on the right as an example - you can compare it to the painting in the gallery.
A pencil or ruler held out with a straight arm at some distance from the painting will help students to identify the main pictorial axes by revealing which elements are aligned. Students should start by drawing in the horizon line and then look for features placed on the vertical and horizontal half-way lines, and on diagonals.
You might also like to ask students to compare the composition of the sketch for Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds and the final oil painting executed 11 years later. You could also see how a reproduction of the finished version of The Hay Wain differs from the V&A's full-size oil sketch.
Back at school
Ask students to photocopy a photograph of a landscape from a magazine and re-compose it by cutting and pasting, following the diagrams they made at the V&A. If your school is in a rural area, you could suggest that students try taking landscape photographs with typical Constable compositions. The results in either medium could then be enlarged on a photocopier. Soft pastel applied over photocopies is a quick and effective way of producing finished works. The photocopy provides the composition and tone, leaving students free to concentrate on colour. Students could investigate the expressive possibilities of landscape through the shades they choose.
Activity: tonal studies
Constable had a lifelong obsession with light and dark. His work became darker and more dramatic as his career progressed. Some critics have seen this as evidence of a pervasive melancholy following his beloved wife Maria's early death in 1828.
In the late drawing View on the Stour: Dedham Church in the Distance, very dark tones predominate with few areas of white or intermediate tones. This bold oil sketch is one of the earliest to demonstrate the vibrancy and originality of Constable's mature style. The lock gates are probably near Flatford Mill. Constable was very familiar with the barges that carried grain on the River Stour.
In Constable's paintings tone helps create movement, leading the eye from one part of the picture to another and emphasising key elements. It frequently echoes the compositional lines. In the full-size study for 'The Hay Wain', the dark mass of trees to the left of centre leads the eye down to the figures standing at the water's edge. The Hay Wain cart itself is emphasised by the very light shirt of the driver. Bright tones in the top right and bottom left corners create balance and frame the diagonal flow of the river.
At the V&A
You could ask students to make drawings of Constable oil sketches and paintings in the Level 3 Paintings galleries, using black conté or wax crayon. If the students use the crayons on their side it will help them concentrate on tone rather than line. They should up tones over the whole surface, laying in all areas of the same tone at once and working from dark to light. Remind them that this is a specific exercise - they are making a sketch or study rather than a careful drawing. In this way they can block in tones in very rough shapes rather than worrying about details.
You could try the exercise at school before your visit. Alternatively, ask your students to make a tonal study of clouds from one of Constable's paintings. Discuss the relation between the different tones and the composition. Do very light or dark areas highlight particular elements? How are different tones distributed across the picture plane? You could extend the activity by asking students to write descriptions of paintings concentrating on their mood and atmosphere. Comparing two descriptions of the same painting can be fascinating.
Back at school
Students could use their sketches as the basis for collages, using black, white and grey sugar paper, or scraps of newspaper with varying tonal values.
Activity: colour jigsaw
Constable's early work, such as 'The Valley of the Stour with Dedham in the Distance', is characterised by clear, fresh blues and greens. However, as the tone of his paintings and drawings became progressively darker, the colours also became darker and duller. By 1821, and the large-scale sketch for The Hay Wain, dark browns predominate.
In his open-air oil sketches, Constable applied colour in a variety of ways - rich impasto (thickly applied paint) and glazes (translucent oil paint), heavy dots of bright colour and light touches of pure white. Quick strokes with a brush bearing only a small amount of paint gave a dappled 'dry brush' effect, allowing the colours underneath to show through. Constable attempted the same fresh and rapid techniques when working on the final canvas back in his studio. He intended the varied paint surface to be examined close-up as well as viewed from a distance.
Close-up examination sometimes reveals small areas of the original background colour (the 'ground'). Constable favoured beige or mid-brown grounds. In The Valley of the Stour, with Dedham in the Distance, he left the reddish-brown ground uncovered in places such as the banks of the river. A coloured ground gives an overall warmer and darker effect than a white ground, which was not commonly used until later in the 19th century.
At the V&A
Before going to the museum, enlarge postcards of the V&A's Constable paintings on a photocopier. (Postcards are available from the museum shops). Cut the image into eight equal sections.
Give each student a section from one of the images and an A4 piece of paper. If possible, use mid-brown paper that will mimic the ground Constable used in oil paintings. Your students' task is to find the painting from which their section came and to draw an enlarged colour version of it, filling a whole sheet of paper. They might find it helpful to divide both the photocopied section and their drawing paper into quarters to help get the right proportions. Constable used this kind of 'squaring up' technique when making oil paintings from sketches. If your time at the V&A is limited, students could sketch out their section from the photocopy before the visit and concentrate on colour at the museum.
Try asking students to draw directly with oil pastels or wax crayons. These will give good, quick coverage of large areas and a suitable intensity of colour. Avoid coloured pencils, which tend to be too feeble on a coloured ground.
Back at school
Put the students' sections together to recreate the whole paintings. Some sections may need to be modified in order to link together correctly. Students might enjoy mounting the final work and making a mock gilt frame for it.