Constable & McTaggart

In April 2017, John Constable's great painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (exhibited 1831) went on display at the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound. It has come to Edinburgh as part of a national tour that began when the painting was aquired for the nation in 2013. Our display explores the influence of Constable’s art on one of Scotland’s most well-loved landscape painters, William McTaggart (1835-1910). 

Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is one of the greatest masterpieces of British art, and the culmination of his monumental series of ‘six-footer’ canvases. Painted in the aftermath of the death of his beloved wife Maria, this turbulent landscape is the most visually spectacular of all the ‘six-footers’ and the work he regarded with the greatest pride, referring to it as ‘The Great Salisbury’.

It will be shown in dialogue with one of the most powerful and celebrated of all Scottish landscape paintings: William McTaggart’s The Storm (1890). Constable’s work was a source of profound inspiration for McTaggart throughout much of his career, both on an artistic and personal level. The display will explore the transformative influence of his artistic practice and technique on McTaggart, the ‘father of Scottish Painting’.

In 2013, Constable’s extraordinary landscape was secured for the nation through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manton Foundation, Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and Tate Members. The painting comes to Edinburgh through the Aspire programme, a ground-breaking partnership of five UK museums and galleries: Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, National Galleries of Scotland, The Salisbury Museum and Tate Britain. Aspire is supported by Art Fund, and by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Constable and McTaggart: Influence and Inspiration

From early in his career, sketching from nature was an essential aspect of Constable’s working practice. Between 1808 and 1829 he regularly made on the spot oil studies as a direct response to landscape and the weather. He chose not to sell these works, regarding them as private reference material. With his acute observation of nature and extraordinary speed of execution, Constable brought an unparalleled inventiveness and technical brilliance to the medium.

Until the 1880s Constable’s oil sketches were little known, remaining largely within his family. Public perception of his work changed radically as knowledge of these lyrical, spontaneous works spread. Between 1883 and 1887 a group of oil sketches was among 118 paintings and drawings placed on loan to the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (now the National Museums of Scotland) by Mrs Anna Constable, widow of the artist’s son, Charles Golding Constable. The subjects included seascapes, cloud studies and views of Hampstead. Among those inspired by this opportunity to study Constable’s oil sketches at first hand was William McTaggart.

John Constable, On the Stour about 1830

McTaggart had long admired Constable; he frequently read C.R. Leslie’s biography of the artist and made every effort to see his work, probably viewing Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in Manchester in 1857. Constable’s dedication to painting outdoors and his insistence on the importance of skies in a composition would have strongly appealed to McTaggart, who also adopted Constable’s habit of using flickering white highlights to illuminate a landscape. Above all, his study of Constable’s oil sketches, with their defining qualities of freshness, movement, light and air, liberated McTaggart’s brush and brought new vigour to his technique.

Like Constable, McTaggart and his work are strongly assocciated with a particular location. Place was important for both these artists; Salisbury for Constable, and Kintyre for McTaggart.

Constable and Salisbury

Apart from his ‘home’ landscape of Suffolk, Constable painted Salisbury more than any other place. It was friendship that drew him there; he first visited in 1811, invited by the Bishop of Salisbury, John Fisher. During this stay he met Reverend John Fisher, the Bishop’s nephew, who became his closest friend and supporter. By 1820 the younger Fisher had a house, Leadenhall, in the Cathedral Close, where Constable visited him, returning again in 1821, 1823 and 1829.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has its origins in Constable’s final visits to Salisbury in 1829. He sketched the cathedral from different viewpoints and must have discussed a large landscape with Fisher, who urged him to start work on his ‘Church under a cloud’. In 1831 the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. Although it received a mixed response, Constable regarded this work as among his finest, referring to it as ‘The Great Salisbury’.

In this monumental landscape, the last of Constable’s ‘six-footers’, emotion, faith and artistic ambition are intertwined. . The detailed landscape and the spectacular sky are the climax of his lifelong study of nature and the weather, while the subject pays tribute to Fisher. The clouds that menace the cathedral suggest his fear of impending political reforms to the Anglican Church. Above all, the turbulent skies reflect Constable’s profound grief at the loss of his wife Maria, who had died in 1828. Yet the rainbow, Biblical symbol of redemption, blazes forth, offering hope that life’s storms can be endured.

McTaggart and Kintyre

William McTaggart is one of Scotland’s greatest landscape painters. His work offers a singular and poetic vision of life on the Scottish coasts, painted with a freedom unprecedented in Scottish art.

McTaggart was born at Aros in Kintyre, on the south-west coast of Scotland. The son of a labourer, he was apprenticed to the local apothecary in Campbeltown aged twelve. A talent for drawing soon became clear and his employer encouraged him to pursue an artistic career. In 1852 he entered the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh. Although McTaggart lived and worked in Edinburgh, he returned to Kintyre in summer to sketch and also worked on the east coast of Scotland.

William McTaggart, Two Girls. Study for the Painting 'Spring' 1864
William McTaggart, Spring 1864
Detail from The Storm showing the figures on the shore struggling to launch a rescue vessel.

In The Storm, his 1890 masterpiece, figures struggle desperately to push out a rowing boat amid the pounding surf. In the distance a sail-less fishing dinghy veers dangerously towards the rocks. For McTaggart, the Scottish landscape was a place where people negotiated their existence with nature and everyday labour had its own nobility. 

McTaggart’s loose, remarkably dynamic brushwork, a distinctive feature of his style, developed from the late 1870s. This change has often been linked to a presumed knowledge of French Impressionism. More recently, however, it has been convincingly argued that it was the work and life of John Constable that galvanised and inspired McTaggart towards this transformation.