From Constable's Cornfield at the National Gallery to Abstract Art in the Twentieth Century at New York's Guggenheim, Norbert Lynton considers English views of artby Norbert Lynton / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
If the French, being an intellectual people, have a certain idea of France, the English have a picture-a picture from which much of the ugliness and squalor of modernity has been eliminated.”
My text comes from the Trevor Phillips/Peregrine Worsthorne debate in Prospect (March) about Englishness and the problems and benefits brought to it by non-Englishers in the woodpile. Phillips thought Worsthorne was being “slippery in suggesting that Englishness rests in some indefinable romantic picture.” It so happens that the National Gallery’s At Home with Constable’s Cornfield exhibition (until 21st April) pre-empts the discussion, suggesting Worsthorne is right and providing Phillips with the romantic picture he was questioning. It surrounds Constable’s painting with a host of copies and imitations, all made in pursuit of Englishness.
Constable painted his picture with exceptional deliberation in 1826, when he was nearly 50. He showed it at the Royal Academy that year. No one wanted to buy it then, nor when it was shown in Paris (where Constable met with more admiration than at home), Birmingham and Worcester. So it stayed in his studio until he died in 1837. It was then presented to the National Gallery by a group of subscribers-Wordsworth among them.
Thus an important painting by a disdained and then under-regarded artist has become a national icon. This is the English way. The liberties taken with the picture suggest that the affection bestowed by owners of Cornfield tiles, cigarette cards, or trays, has little to do with looking at the original. In effect, it is the idea of an image rather than the image itself that is cherished. The idea conveys a fantasy of England: at ease, unhurried, when a boy could drink from a stream and corn grew plentifully without chemical fertilisers and an old church joined lively clouds and patches of blue sky in representing a deity smiling upon the rich Englishman in his castle and the poor Englishman at his gate.
Constable had done his very best to make The Cornfield saleable. It is indeed “romantic,” by no means a snapshot-in-oils of a particular scene, but a vision averted from ugliness and squalor, constructed out of bits from various studies. Research has shown how selective much of Constable’s work was-a fantasy of rural bliss from an artist who knew the real world well.
In this instance, he assembled earlier studies and worked in snatches from admired landscape…