John Constable: The Dark Side

The Gallery at The Arc, Winchester

When we think of an idealised England like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Jane Austen’s Meryton, Thomas Hardy’s Little Hintock, Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead or even The Archers’ Ambridge in the BBC radio soap opera, they all have echoes of the work of John Constable.

Rainstorm over the Sea, 1824-1828.

Responsible for those most English of scenes like The Haywain, Flatford Mill, Dedham Vale or Salisbury Cathedral,  Constable unfailingly captured the spirit of the English countryside with all its conflicting light and dappled shade.

Most Constable paintings have a dog, a horse, a cart, a haystack, a mill, several boys fishing in a stream and maybe a cottage that is probably half-timbered with wild dog roses around the door.

It would be incredibly unfair to marginalise  John Constable as the artist who launched a thousand biscuit tins, tea trays or glossy monthly calendars. But that is how a great many of us first know his work.

Constable is so much more than that. He is, without a doubt, one of our greatest and most important painters, as a wonderful and profoundly moving new show at The Arc in Winchester confirms.

However, we emerge from it with a rather different impression as to who he was and what he went through during a quietly turbulent life.

Constable: The Dark Side examines the artist through the use of chiaroscuro in his work – that is, the use of light and shadow.

A year before he died, Constable gave a lecture on the history of landscape at Cambridge in 1836. In it, he said:

Chiaroscuro may be defined as that power which creates space, we find it everywhere and at all times in nature, opposition, union, light, shade, reflection and refraction, all contribute to it.

The Arc show is almost like a storyboard of Constable’s life. It opens with a small profile portrait of Constable by his close friend Charles Leslie.

Painted at the highest point of his professional life and the lowest point of his personal life, it shows a middle-aged man worn down by adversity and sadness but confident in his great talent.

Constable is wearing mourning in the portrait and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Only a few weeks earlier, in November 1828, his beloved wife Maria died, leaving him alone with seven children to raise.

In January 1829 – a mere matter of weeks – he achieved his long-held ambition to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts.

In a letter written to his brother soon after his wife’s death, he said, “Hourly do I feel the loss of my departed angel….I shall never feel again as I have felt. The face of the world has totally changed for me.”

The second image is a drawing of one of his children as a baby and an ever-present reminder of happier days. This is the chiaroscuro of his life – the joy in his family measured by the pain of his loss.

The exhibition is infused with a profound and deeply unsettling darkness that surrounded the cherished painter of bucolic peaceful scenes, flooded with golden sunlight and happiness.

Constable: The Dark Side examines the artist not by looking at his paintings but rather at his oil sketches, watercolours and the mezzotints made from his landscapes.

There is only one large oil painting in the exhibition on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum, and it feels oddly out of place and formal next to Constable’s highly intimate sketches and watercolours.

Weymouth Bay, 1816.


Benjamin West, the president of the Royal Academy of Arts at the time, once said to Constable, “Always remember that light and shade never stand still.”

It was advice that he never forgot, and his use of chiaroscuro to capture the moment was his particular skill.

What emerges almost from his first sketch in the show is just how emotional an artist Constable was and how those emotions are always near the surface. His very life is laid before us.

The first fleeting moment in the exhibition is in fact, two fleeting moments that happened on 2nd and 3rd October 1814. It is a tiny pencil drawing divided in two of his parent’s home, in East Bergholt, in Suffolk.

The first one shows the house on a still autumn evening illuminated by moonlight. Below it, the same house is shown at noon in the blazing sun. All is well with the world.

Less than a year later, on 24th August 1815, he once more drew the lawn at his childhood home, and all is not well. You can all but smell the dried grass and feel the heat creeping into your bones.

On the horizon stands ominously a lone tree that perhaps represents his mother, who had died a few months earlier and was no longer there to support him and welcome him home.

The key to the early drawings and, indeed, the whole exhibition is to be found in a pencil sketch of St Mary’s Church, where Maria’s grandfather was the vicar.

The sundial above the south porch has a Latin motto carved on it. Ut Umbra Sic Vita – life is like a shadow. Constable never forgot it. It comes back to haunt him and us.

In a very real sense, Constable grew up with that motto. He walked under it every time he went to church – it became the motto he inadvertently lived by.

John Constable spent a life in the shadows waiting to be heralded as an artist, a life in the shadows waiting seven long years to marry his great love Maria, a life in the shadows waiting for her tuberculosis to take her away, paralysed by depression and anxiety and, finally, a life in the shadows not getting over her death.

His life was comprised of light and shade, of immense joy and painful loss.

Shadows are present everywhere in this marvellous exhibition. “I live by shadows; shadows are realities,” wrote Constable.

There is a vibrant oil sketch of the beach at Ossington in Dorset, where Maria and John spent their honeymoon in 1816 when he finally married her.

The sky is heavy- full of dark grey clouds crushing the small figures on the sands below. The sea is wild and restless. His work features many heavy, portentous skies bearing down on the vulnerable humans and their small, fragile dwellings below.

In 1821 when he had first moved to Hampstead for Maria’s health, Constable wrote:

It will be difficult to name the class of landscape in which the sky is not the key note, the standard of scale and the chief organ of sentiment – the sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything.

In his oil sketch View At Hampstead Looking Due East, you see sunlight glinting through the trees and dark figures on horseback against the horizon. Despite the balance of light and shade, darkness will, in the end, triumph.

Constable wrote five years later from his home in Hampstead, “I have done a great deal of skying – I am determined to conquer all difficulties and that most arduous one among the rest.”

View At Hampstead Looking Due East (L), 1823.


Another angry sky above the heath was an indication of his deep concern about his wife’s precarious health. This sky represented life and the passage of time but also the force of nature and illness over which he had no control.

There are many summer visits to coastal resorts in an increasingly vain attempt to improve Maria’s health. He refers to them somewhat pejoratively as “Piccadilly by the seaside”, but even there, the skies are heavy and full of foreboding.

Constable writes during the last sea visit only two months before Maria’s death of his belief that “They tell me she does mend, pray God that this may be the case. I am much worn with anxiety.”

But his brush tells another story of stormy skies and a small boat at the mercy of the sea.

Maria is buried at their parish church in Hampstead, and on her tomb, Constable has engraved the following: “Alas From how slender a thread hangs all that is sweetest in life.”

The artist lives for another nine years, and the thread is indeed slender.

The rest of the art in the exhibition shows Constable trying to recapture the scenes of his “careless boyhood” and his fleeting moments of happiness with his wife. He paints the places that he loves because, unlike Maria, they still live.

Constable decides to make his work available to a larger audience by commissioning the engraver David Lucas to make a series of mezzotints of his most famous landscapes, English Landscape Scenery.

Mezzotint is a technique that was fashionable at the time that encompassed everything from the darkest deepest black to the most snow-like white and everything in between.

Constable wrote to William Wordsworth that his little work “occupied him during a season of sadness”.

The Arc show highlights his somewhat fractious relationship with the ever-patient Lucas, who is often upbraided for destroying an image or ruining a building through his craft.

In the 1833 preface Constable writes:

The broad still lights of a Summer evening with the solemn and far-extended shadows cast round by the intervening objects, small portions of them only and of the landscape gilded by the setting sun, cannot fail to give interest to the most simple or barren subjects and even to mark it with pathos and effect.

We witness Constable as a single parent trying to balance his work and his family worries without the support of his wife. He experiences poor health and severe depression.

In life imitating art, he accuses himself of thinking “too darkly” and needing to “lighten” his thoughts. His one moment of hope and Christian redemption in the series is in the introduction at the last minute of a rainbow over Stoke Church.

Constable expends far too much ink in letters to Lucas to get it just right. It required moving the church tower from the centre to the left of the print.

Not an easy task for a mezzotint engraver using a steel plate rather than oil paints or a pencil. The ghost of the original position of the church tower is still visible.

The rainbow does not work, and the book was a dismal failure. Constable referred to it as “my dreadful book” and was left with thousands of unsold proofs. By 1834 he would write:

Every gleam of sunshine is blighted to me in the art at least. Can it therefore be wondered at that I paint continual storms.. still the darkness is majestic.

The mezzotint series opens with his home in East Bergholt and ends with a view of Hampstead that the artist labels with the motto from St Mary’s Church: Ut Umbra sic Vita or Life is like a shadow.

We are like Constable back where we started.

Photographs courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts, Victoria and Albert Museum and The Gallery at The Arc. All rights reserved.