The world through an artist's eyes
Constable's sketchbooks reveal the personal side
4 October 2016
In books, as in life, it’s often the large, showy, and colourful that capture all the attention. However, some of my favourites in the Library’s collection are the small, modest, little items that could easily be overlooked, but which have wonderful stories to tell. They can capture the imagination and provide surprising insights into the life and work of their creators.
Two unprepossessing little volumes, bound in simple plain blue and small enough to fit easily in your outstretched hand, are amongst my favourites.
Why? They don’t contain any colour, nor any printed text, they are full of pencil drawings, many now faded, and they are facsimiles not the originals. But these seemingly modest sketchbooks give me a real thrill as I leaf through them. They are facsimiles of the sketchbooks of the artist John Constable from the summers of 1813 and 1814, reproduced from the originals held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. To me, these are genuine treasures! They tell us so much about the man as well as his art – in many ways far more than his finished paintings.
John Constable is today one of the most popular British artists, and his landscape paintings are highly valuable. However, like many of the artists we love today, he was not financially successful during his life. In fact, during his lifetime he sold only 20 paintings in England, and was actually much more popular in France, where he was able to sell more of his works. Despite this, Constable had a deep love for England, particularly East Bergholt and the surrounding area on the borders of Essex and Suffolk where he grew up, and he refused to consider travelling overseas to promote himself and his art internationally.
Many of Constable’s most loved works are of scenes in the vicinity of this childhood home. He eschewed the fashion for portraiture (although he did do some fine portraits to help financially), and rejected the popular romantic visions of wild landscapes and dramatic ruins that bore little relationship to the real world. Constable was a great believer in composing from nature rather than the imagination, so his works represent what he saw around him. He wanted to draw what he saw through his own eyes, without the influence of others. Constable’s practice was to make many observational studies before embarking on the final painting.The two sketchbooks from 1813 and 1814 contain Constable’s pencil sketches of people, places and animals that he saw as he spent the summers of 1813 and 1814 tramping around the East Bergholt area.
This was a particularly difficult period in Constable’s life as his long engagement with Maria Bicknell seemed to have reached an impasse due to the opposition of Maria’s father, who was concerned about Constable’s financial position. Constable was refused permission to see her in London. Letters at this time show Constable feeling sad, depressed and frustrated, so little wonder that he retreated back to his beloved childhood home in East Bergholt, where his father owned mills at Flatford and Dedham.
The sketchbooks are a fascinating window into what piqued his interest and how he saw his surroundings through his artist’s eyes. You can even identify scenes and figures that were later depicted in his finished works.
Some of the sketches are quite detailed, while others are just a few quick lines. The books are obviously working tools, some pages containing multiple sketches in various directions, consecutive pages with sketches in opposite orientations and some blank pages. When something took Constable’s fancy he must have just pulled his little sketchbook out of his pocket and started drawing on the next spare space, no matter which way up it was!
There are sketches of buildings, churches, landscapes, animals, men at work, the river Stour, boats and more. I can imagine him wandering through the summer fields and alongside the river, perhaps with a hunk of bread and cheese in one pocket and his sketchbook and pencil in another, stopping beside a fence to quickly draw some animals or a farmer at work. Or see him seated on a hillside, or atop a stile, or beside the river Stour pausing to draw the landscape he saw. Or walking through a village and, seeing a building he loved or admired, resting there for a while with his back against a wall while he drew it in some detail.
Being rendered in pencil, some of the sketches are now quite faint, and you can imagine the original sketchbooks being well used as Constable returned to them repeatedly for inspiration, with the pencil gradually fading as he leafed through the pages. It gives them an even greater feeling of being a working tool and a unique opportunity to see into the mind of the artist. They are very personal, in a way that more formal paintings can never be, and really reach out to touch my soul across the centuries.