Yale to Ipswich: Curating Constable
Written by Lisa Ford, Assistant Director of Research, Yale Center for British Art
Beginning in the spring of 2013, the Yale Center for British Art, with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, began a new curatorial scholars’ program. It focuses on offering four-week residencies at the Center to curators who are based in regional museums in the UK and have collections or curatorial interests that encompass British art. In April 2014, Emma Roodhouse, Art Curator at Colchester & Ipswich Museums, came to Yale to examine the Center’s collection of works by John Constable. She was preparing for an exhibition celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of Constable’s paintings Golding Constable’s Flower Garden and Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden, both in the collection of Ipswich Borough Council. On May 23, 2015, the exhibition Constable’s Gardens opened at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.
Christchurch Mansion, a stunning Tudor mansion built on the site of a former priory, has one of the world’s most important collections of Constable’s works. It is the only gallery within the artist’s home county with a permanent display of his paintings. This richly textured exhibition, also featuring loans from Tate Britain, Victoria and Albert Museum, and The Fitzwilliam Museum, and is the culmination of Roodhouse’s program of research, which benefited greatly from her time at the Center.
(Emma Roadhouse and Lisa Ford at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, UK)
Constable’s Gardens is the second of three Constable-inspired displays that run through 2015. This activity is part of Aspire, a partnership program enabling audiences of all ages to enjoy and learn more about the work of John Constable. Aspire is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.
The exhibition also features Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), one of the greatest masterpieces of British art. It was secured for the nation in 2013, when it was purchased by the Tate with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manton Foundation, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the then newly formed Aspire partnership of five galleries: Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales, the National Galleries of Scotland, Colchester and Ipswich Museums, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, and Tate Britain. This is the first time that one of Constable’s six-footer paintings has been displayed in Ipswich.
While at the Center, in addition to examining objects in the collection, Roodhouse concentrated on the shape of the show, planning out the initial loans, and putting together a chronology of Constable paintings relating to his childhood home, in East Bergholt. “I had the time to really look at these garden images that he did, and thought it would be great to make these connections with other places he lived and had great affection for, and show them alongside the flower and kitchen garden paintings,” she explained.
The Center’s collection includes a painting of Constable’s birthplace in East Bergholt as well as a number of paintings and sketches of the area, but one particular object that caught Roodhouse’s attention was a letter from a young Constable to John Thomas Smith, a draftsman and printmaker, asking about etching formulae. The letter included a sketch of the Constable’s threshing barn “and a quote saying, ‘this is the view from my window,’ and that must be the earliest view of the garden,” said Roodhouse.
(John Constable, Golding Constable’s House, East Bergholt: the Artist’s Birthplace, ca. 1809, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)
The exhibition makes myriad connections to East Bergholt and the surrounding countryside, which Roodhouse observed was a source of inspiration throughout his life. “I was keen to show people how he just went out in the local area and was doing these sketches in between bigger oil paintings, and his journey through these early years was quite important to what he then produced.”
A variety of objects are featured in the exhibition, including landscapes by Thomas Gainsborough (which show that painter’s influence on Constable), pages from Constable’s sketchbooks, Constable’s death mask, and his palette. But, the major focus lies in bringing forward Constable’s home and family—the places and people he held in great affection. “He did say painting is another word for feeling,” said Roodhouse, “and I think that comes across.”
Indeed, the titular paintings of the flower and kitchen gardens could be seen as personifications of his parents, Golding and Anne Constable, whose portraits are also in the exhibition. As Roodhouse explained, “his mother and his father were such essential parts to those particular paintings … the kitchen garden being more representative for his father and the flower garden was more his mother’s domain.” Equally strong personal emotions are perhaps conveyed through the famous six-foot painting of Salisbury cathedral, with its rainbow, which has been seen as a symbol of hope, relating to Constable’s emotional state as the painting was done after the death of his beloved wife, Maria. “He said Salisbury was the one he poured all his feeling into,” said Roodhouse.
Constable’s Gardens will be on view through September 6, 2015. Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows remains on display until January 31, 2016.
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