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 came to Edinburgh as part of a national tour that began when the painting was aquired for the nation in 2013. Our display explored 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 was 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 explored 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 came 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.

Weather and The Seasons

Both Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and McTaggart’s The Storm use weather as a central and symbolic part of the picture. Brooding, thunderous clouds are present in both, and hope is signified by the rainbow in Constable’s. McTaggars’s painting is a far more human experience, and hope in his work comes in the form of the people who battle against the elements as they endeavour to save their fellow fisher-folk.

Detail of The Storm
William McTaggart, By Summer Seas Dated 1890-1896

Constable and McTaggart were both deeply interested in the impact of the cycles of nature on the lives of people, and the effects of the seasons on the landscapes. Like Constable, McTaggart frequently added a word to the titles of his paintings that signalled the time of year it showed, such as ‘Harvest’ ‘Summer’ or ‘Spring time’. Even McTaggart's self portrait was titled A Study of Oak Leaves in Autumn. Constable's poetic interest was equally in tune with the rhythms of nature. When Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was exhibited at the Royal Academy, Constable quoted lines from The Four Seasons: Summer (1727) by Scottish poet James Thompson to emphasise its meaning.

William Aikman, James Thomson, 1700 - 1748. Poet, 1720

As from the face of heaven the scatter’d clouds

Tumultous rove, th’interminable sky

Sublimer swells, and o’er the world expands

A purer azure. Through the lightened air

A higher lustre and a clearer calm

Diffusive tremble; while, as if in sign

Of danger past, a glittering robe of joy,

Set off abundant by the yellow ray,

Invests the fields, and nature smiles reviv’d

- James Thompson, 'The Four Seasons: Summer', 1727

The poem is an exploration of God’s power and man’s inability to control his own fate, but it is also about hope and redemption.

In Constable’s time and also in McTaggart’s, people were acutely aware of their reliance on the seasons and the effects of weather on almost every aspect of life; from travel and communications to the availability of fuel and the production of food. Both paintings (and indeed much of both artists’ work) inadvertently touch on the production of food - essential for both sustenance and economic subsistence. McTaggart shows a fishing community battling what would have been a frequent threat to their survival, but an inescapable occupational hazard.

A fishing skiff struggles against the surf in McTaggart's Crossing the Bar, of about 1883 - 1886

The water meadows in the right middle ground of Constable’s painting also relate to the provision of food. Water meadows rely on a complex man-made pasture irrigation system operated by the farmer. The aim was either to increase total grass production, or bring the grass into season earlier than it would normally be during the agricultural year. Higher grass yields meant larger flocks of sheep could be grazed on the meadows, while also being grazed and fertilising higher slopes at other times. Both paintings celebrate man’s fate as it hangs in a delicate balance controlled by God and nature, with hope as an essential element in survival.

Detail showing the river and water meadows in Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, 1831