Terry Grimley takes a look at the Constables and surrealism on show at Compton Verney.
Everyone knows that John Constable is one of Britain’s greatest landscape painters, but who knows anything about Constable the portrait painter?
Although he never worked in a very serious professional way in this genre, it is estimated that he probably painted around 100 portraits in the course of his career, of which just over half survive. The subjects are often relatives or members of his extended social circle, giving this surprisingly substantial body of work an autobiographical dimension.
The first exhibition ever devoted to this aspect of Constable’s work has just been shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and now it has moved to our doorstep at Compton Verney in Warwickshire.
This means that a small group of paintings in the exhibition has returned to within a few miles of their point of origin. Constable’s chief connection to the West Midlands was through his patron, Henry Greswold Lewis, who lived in Solihull. Lewis was related to Constable’s Suffolk patrons, the Tollemarches of Helmingham Hall.
Constable made numerous paintings over a period of 20 years of Lewis’s house, Malvern Hall, which still survives today as a girls’ school. One of these is included in the exhibition, together with portraits of Lewis himself and a particularly striking one – selected for the cover of the book which accompanies the exhibition – of his ward, Mary Freer. The latter has been lent from the Yale Center for British Art.
Lewis evidently took pride in the beautiful Miss Freer, and once asked Constable to paint a miniature of her eye.
Among other eccentric commissions Lewis came up with for Constable was an imaginary portrait of his Norman ancestors and a sign for a nearby inn in which he had an interest. None of these appears to have survived.
One other fascinating West Midlands connection links Constable to Birmingham. This is the portrait of James Lloyd, a member of the Quaker family which founded Lloyds’ Bank.
James’s brother Charles deserted banking for poetry and joined the exodus to the Lake District, where he may have had the distinction of introducing Wordsworth to Constable in 1806. Charles Lloyd’s sister Priscilla married Wordsworth’s brother Christopher.
It seems that Constable, armed with an introduction from Charles, called in at Birmingham on his journey home, where he painted this portrait. Unfortunately, this painting, which was acquired by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery a few years ago, is one of the least convincing in the exhibition.
On the whole, though, it suggests that Constable might have achieved his ambition to become a member of the Royal Academy more rapidly if he had thrown his full energies into a conventional portraitist’s career. As it was his main interests lay elsewhere and his sitters were never of sufficient social standing that would have enabled him to rival a Sir Thomas Lawrence.
The portraits of his family – his father, brother, sisters, his wife Maria Bicknell (with whom his marriage was long delayed by her family’s opposition) and their various children, are the most compelling. There is something particularly touching about the one he painted in 1835-6 of his 14 year-old son Charles as he was about to embark on his chosen career as a sailor – the more so as we know the anxiety Constable was feeling on his behalf. In fact, Charles would eventually retire after a long and successful career at sea. This portrait, by the way, was owned by the composer Benjamin Britten.
Also showing at Compton Verney is Surrealism and Contemporary Art: Subversive Spaces, an exhibition from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. It is a slightly baffling show, not only because Surrealism is supposed to be baffling but because its thematic threads are not always clearly defined,
But suffice to say that it aims to draw parallels between the interests of the Surrealists and those of various artists working today, which range through a number of themes from dreams and eroticism to the neglected spaces of the city.
Including such diverse artists as Tony Oursler (whose video and sound installation of a woman apparently trapped under a settee is one of the creepiest things you will ever see), Giorgio de Chirico, Sarah Lucas and the Paris photographers Brassei and Eugene Atget, it’s a mixed bag to say the least, and a bit hit-and-miss in effect.
But I loved Douglas Gordon’s giant two-screen installation showing the same hammy pseudo-documentary, made in 1907, of two doctors treating a woman for hysteria – one in real time, the other in Gordon’s trademark slow-motion with which he famously stretched Hitchcock’s Psycho to 24 hours.
* Constable Portraits – the Painter and his Circle and Surrealism and Contemporary Art – Subversive Spaces are at Compton Verney, near Kineton, Warwickshire, until September 6 (Tuesday-Sunday 11am-5pm, admission £8, concessions £6, families £18).