Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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In 1798 John Constable met Dr John Fisher who was rector of Langham in Suffolk near to Constable’s family home. His friendship with the Fisher family blossomed and Constable was invited to Windsor in 1802 where Fisher was canon. In 1807 John Fisher, who was a favorite of George III, was appointed Bishop of Salisbury and four years later Constable stayed for several weeks as a guest in the bishop’s palace. Here he met the bishop’s nephew, another John who was also ordained in 1812 and who became Constable’s closest friend and confidant. In 1816 the younger Fisher officiated at Constable’s wedding to Maria Bicknell.
In 1820 Constable was back in Salisbury for an extended visit which resulted in a commission for a view of Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop Fisher. This painting (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) was eventually exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1823 and received positive reviews, although Constable seems to have found its execution to be somewhat arduous. In a letter to the younger Fisher he wrote:
‘My Cathedral looks very well. Indeed I got through that job uncommonly well considering how much I dreaded it… It was the most difficult subject in landscape I ever had upon my easel. I have not flinched at the work, of the windows, Buttresses etc., etc.’ .
However, all was not entirely well at the bishop’s residence where the inclusion in the picture of dark clouds looming above the cathedral were not to the prelate’s liking. Consequently Constable was asked to take ‘another peep or two at the view of our Cathedral’ and was eventually commissioned to repeat the composition with the hope that this time he ‘would but leave out his black clouds.’ The painter duly responded by producing this painting, similar in most respects but with white clouds and a warmer blue sky.
The graceful thrust of the cathedral spire (the tallest in Britain) soars into this unthreatening sky framed and complemented by trademark Constable trees – realised with unsurpassed skill. The complex architecture of the great church sits perfectly within the English pastoral idyll which surrounds it; the uninterrupted greensward of the close providing the perfect foil for the predominantly vertical emphasis of the 13th-century Gothic structure.
To the left, the bishop and his wife have stopped momentarily to admire the view, the bishop using his walking stick in order to direct his wife’s attention to one or two interesting architectural elements. Ahead of them, in the middle distance, one can see the figure of a young lady – presumably their daughter (who was the intended recipient of this painting – as a wedding gift).
Apart from his personal connections with Salisbury, the subject of this picture chimes with Constable’s conservative political views. He saw the church, together with parliament, as the twin pillars upholding Britain’s social and political stability (then under attack from strident political pressures unleashed by the Industrial Revolution). This picture, together with other famous examples of his oeuvre (such as the Hay Wain), can be seen as paradigms, as exemplars, not just of a beautiful, peaceful and quintessentially English landscape but of the immutable order of British society, a stasis which Constable held dear.
1825 Samuel Palmer: Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
1826 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Oedipus and the Sphinx, London, National Gallery
1826 Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: The Forum Seen from the Farnese Gardens, Paris, Musée du Louvre