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John Constable at The Lightbox, Woking: Interview with Peter Hall

Image © The Lightbox via Facebook

The current exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking is John Constable: Observing the Weather, an in-depth examination of Constable’s fascination with weather. The exhibition focuses on his scientific observation mixed with artistic skill to uniquely record changes in landscape. Culture Calling spoke to Peter Hall, Curator of The Lightbox, who gave us an insight into the planning and development of the exhibition and how audiences have been reacting to this new exhibition.

Culture Calling: John Constable: Observing the Weather at The Lightbox opened in February, how long have you been planning this exhibition?

Peter Hall: The Lightbox had been planning the exhibition well over 2 years in advance of the opening in order to research and find all the available works that related to the theme.

CC: What is the process of curating an exhibition from works on loan from major institutions?

PH: After the initial research is completed and a long-list of works has been compiled, The Lightbox then contacts major national and regional institutions to ask whether the material is available to borrow. The material may or may not be available depending on existing loan commitments, as with a work like The Hay Wain or Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, they are the star attractions at the V&A and Tate respectively. Once this correspondence has been completed, we then write formally to ask to borrow the works and begin to explore any special requirements the works might have. We then install the exhibitions over a 2-3 week period and open the exhibition with a party to thank all those who have participated, helped or supported the exhibition. This often can tally to up to 100 people. Two years is quite a long lead-time, but is required for such major works – at the same time, the last three months can be particularly intensive.

Image credit: John Constable, Study of Clouds, oil on paper, 1822 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

CC: What interested you about Constable’s scientific approach to depicting landscapes and seascapes?

PH: His belief that one needed to combine direct observation with scientific understanding was nothing short of revolutionary. No other artist of his age, or since, has come close to representing the forces of nature with such scientific truth and accuracy. Constable used science to observe and gain a better understanding of weather’s changeability in order for him to capture its ephemeral nature in his landscapes. For Constable, his observations were translated directly into painting and drawing, allowing the landscapes he created to be more believable and closer to nature. It is this quality of truthfulness and honesty that explains why Constable’s works possess a sense of modernity and continue to keep a hold on our imagination.

CC: How do you think Constable would feel knowing that some of his sketches, not intended for the public, are on display in the gallery?

PH: As he once wrote, “painting should be understood…as a pursuit, legitimate, scientific and mechanical.” For me, this is evidence of a kind of validation for showing them.

Without wishing to speak for him too firmly – my view is that he might have appreciated the level of understanding that scholars, galleries and the public can now demonstrate about his work. Much like his print-based published work, the sketches have ensured the longevity of his paintings and have promoted a deeper understanding of Constable’s technique, scientific approach and commitment to meteorological understanding.

In terms of their artistic merit and status as art objects – they are a tour de force. One of the most remarkable features of the sketches, when compared with those of other artists, is the sheer variety of angles and approaches they adopt. They go far beyond what Constable might have needed as studies of skies for his large paintings.

CC: How have audiences responded to the exhibition so far?

PH: Visitors have responded to the exhibition very positively and it is proving to be one of our most popular exhibitions to date. People have commented that they love the mix of sketches, mezzotints and oils on canvas which really shows the progressive approach that Constable took to accurately capturing a landscape and particularly the weather conditions. Other visitors have noted that they have been fascinated to discover that Constable used scientific pamphlets of the day to educate himself on the weather and are pleased to find that originals of these can be seen alongside weather instruments such as barometers.

Image credit: John Constable, Weymouth Bay, Bowleaze Cove and Jordan Hill, 1816-17 © The National Gallery, London

CC: Finally, do you have a highlight?

PH: Yes, the star of the show is the full-scale oil sketch for ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ on loan from Guildhall Art Gallery. The full-scale sketches helped Constable to work out his composition and ideas before tackling the final canvas. This unique practice is unprecedented in the history of Western art, and today, these full-scale sketches are admired as much as the final, more finished exhibition pieces.

An indication of how the final painting looked can be seen in Constable’s large mezzotint version, which is also in the exhibition, produced in collaboration with David Lucas. The finished oil was acquired by Tate in 2013, for the special price of £23.1 million with tax concessions equivalent to an open market sale of £40 million. It is currently touring the UK.

John Constable: Observing the Weather is open from 13 February – 8 May 2016. Entry to the exhibition is £5 with an Annual Pass, under 18s Free. For more information please visit The Lightbox website.