Apart from the clouds, and Constable didn’t do bad clouds, this is really an awful mess of a painting. In 1832 Constable exhibited his Opening of Waterloo Bridge at the Royal Academy, a painting to which he attached great importance and on which he had apparently laboured for some 10 years. It was to Constable’s great misfortune however that it was exhibited in a small room next to a very simple JMW Turner seascape. A grey picture, beautiful and true, but with no positive colour (initially) in any part of it.
As was the custom of the day, Constable was working on his picture on the very wall of the gallery when Turner came into the room, and watched as Constable fiddled away. Then Turner disappeared to another room where he was touching up another picture, and returned with his palette and brushes. He walked up to his own picture and, without hesitation, he added a daub of red, somewhat bigger than a coin, in the middle of the grey sea. Then he left. The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the overall coolness of his picture, caused even the crimson of Constable to look weak. Constable, mortified by Turner’s deft touch, exclaimed to an art critic, a witness of the incident, “He has been here and fired a gun“.
Turner did not bother to come back to his painting for the next day and a half and then, in the last moments allowed for re-touching, he glazed the daub of red on his picture and shaped it into a buoy.
The two artists never got on. In the previous year Constable had contrived to have one of Turner’s paintings moved from a prominent position and replaced with one of his own much to Turner’s disgust and anger.
180 years later the two paintings were reunited at an exhibition at the Tate Britain, the only time they have been shown side-by-side since the artists clashed at the Royal Academy in 1832.
The lead curator for the exhibition said Turner’s Helvoetsluys showed “that real artistry lies in restraint and understanding, not excessive effort.” Incidentally Helvoetsluys (pronounced hell-a-foot-slouse) is a town on the coast of Holland. Once it was a naval port and it was from there, in 1688, that William III of Orange’s invasion fleet departed to effect what is now known as the Glorious Revolution.
Now I wouldn’t wish to finish dissing Constable. I’m a fully fledged member of his extensive fan club and remember Turner had his off days too (though not many).
Further Constable was familiar too with the technique of applying the smallest touch of bright red in a painting which served to highlight and animate the surroundings. Just look for example at the gypsy’s red shawl in the foreground (it is actually far brighter when you stand before it in the National Gallery of Scotland) of his second painting of Dedham Vale which likewise was exhibited at the Royal Academy just four years earlier in 1828. A far more successful painting.