The Tate Britain Acquires a Constable

John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831
Oil on Canvas - 151.8 x 189.9 cm
London, Tate Britain
Photo : Tate Britain

5/9/13 - Acquisition - London, Tate Britain - One of England’s most emblamatic artists almost left the country recently. Fortunately, the painting will simply be moving from one English museum to another. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, on deposit since 1983 at the National Gallery, belonged to Lord Ashton of Hyde who died in 2008. Subsequently, his heirs claimed the canvas in order to sell it. An American museum appeared to show some interest but the Tate Britain finally managed to purchase it for 23.1 million pounds (along with a tax deduction, as stipulated by provisions for acceptance in lieu), thanks to the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund (15.8 million pounds), the Art Fund (1 million), the Manton Foundation and Tate Members. The museum holds an oil study of the composition, while an actual size study resides at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London and a drawing dating from November 1829 can be found at the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight.

The work will be on view at the Tate until the end of the year, then will travel around the United Kingdom in a partnership called Aspire, to five institutions : from the National Museum Wales in 2014 to the Colchester and Ipswich Museums in 2015, then to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum in 2016, finally to the National Galleries of Scotaland in 2017 before returning to the Tate Britain in 2018. We might nevertheless venture to ask just how reasonable it is to take the many risks involved in transporting it from one end of the country to the other, in order to show this masterpiece to the greatest number of people (though probably not more than in London anyway), especially given its very large size.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, then Birmingham, this painting is part of the famous "six footers", the large formats which Constable himself considered to be his most accomplished compositions. He nicknamed this one "the great Salisbury", aware of the fact that he had produced a masterpiece. Although the artist had represented the cathedral several times before, from different angles, the atmosphere of the Tate painting is more dramatic with its stormy sky, the tall spire of the church and the rainbow which cuts across the scene perhaps representing hope, despite the artist’s reticence to resort to symbols.
The scene has often been considered a metaphor for the difficulties faced by the Anglican church, whose influence diminished due first to the emancipation of the Catholics in 1829, then the project for electoral reform which became effective in 1832.
Furthermore, Constable produced this painting a year after the death of his wife. His friend, Archdeacon Fisher, invited him to his home and encouraged him to paint Salisbury. It was during this stay in 1829 that the painter sketched the cathedral. Constable was interested in what he called "the natural history of the sky", and of course in metereology as well as in the Bible, a rainbow is a sign that the bad weather is over. The painting was also accompanied by some verses from a poem by James Thomson, Summer (1727) : "As from the face of heaven the scatter’d clouds / Tumultous rove, th’interminable sky / Sublimer swells, and o’er the world expands / A purer azure. Through the lightened air / A higher lustre and a clearer calm / Diffusive tremble ; while, as if in sign / Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy, / Set off abundant by the yellow ray, / Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv’d".

Salisbury Cathedral Seen from the Meadows was for some time considered the perfect example of Constable’s art in the national collections. Shortly after the death of the artist in 1837, group of persons had indeed decided to purchase one of his works to donate it to the National Gallery ; however, fearing that this canvas would be mistakenly understood by the public, they donated a more pastoral subject instead, The Wheat Field from 1826, the same one in which the artist admitted having conceded to popular taste...
The Cathedral now holds pride of place at the Tate Britain where renovations will end next November thus unveiling a refurbished building and a new itinerary for the collections.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 10 septembre 2013

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