Ohen artist Peter Harrap moves to Brighton, down a narrow street that slopes down to the sea, he sets up his studio in an upper room with a north-facing window – and then discovers to his surprise that he is not not the first artist to appreciate its airy light. Nearly two centuries earlier, John Constable had set up his easel there in the seaside lodgings he had taken for his wife’s health.
An exhibition which opens on Saturday at the Brighton Museum brings together for the first time a sparkling collection of the paintings Constable made in the city, with loans from the Tate, the Royal Academy, the British Museum, the V&A, the University of Cambridge and many private collections.
Years of research by Harrap and his close neighbour, Shan Lancaster, a journalist, led to the property – at 11 Sillwood Road – being awarded a blue plaque when they proved it was the house Constable had rented in 1824, on the first of many stays over the next four years, when it was then known as 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens.
An uncatalogued letter sent by the artist to his wife, Maria, at home, which Harrap found among the papers of the artist’s great-great-grandson in the Tate archives, had provided some the final proof.
Harrap described the feeling of working in the same space as an artist he revered as “like a pat on the shoulder.” Lancaster had learned of the connection when she was first moved down the street by a passerby, while digging in her new front garden. “I was extremely excited, started rummaging everywhere, but no one seemed the least bit interested, so it was a great joy to have Peter as a partner in the hunt.”
When she first learned of the connection, Lancaster asked the local museum if it had any of her works and was informed that there were none. In fact, languishing in stores, they had two designs, now included in the exhibit.
Constable’s paintings of shimmering seas, or towering waves and dark clouds threatening fishermen and their boats on the beach, give a fonder view of Brighton than he initially felt for the place. .
He wrote to a friend, Archdeacon John Fisher, in August 1824: “I live here but I don’t like the place…Brighton is the receptacle of London’s fashion and decadence. The magnificence of the sea and its (to use your beautiful expression) eternal voice is drowned out in the din and lost in the hustle and bustle of stagecoaches – concerts – flies – etc and the beach is Piccadilly (the part where we dined) by the edge of sea.”
Research for the exhibition identified several of the sites of Constable’s paintings and drawings in Brighton, and moved one work, known as Houses in Hampstead, to the narrow road behind his accommodation, now full of back doors from shops and cafes but still recognizable. .
Other works have been firmly attributed to the artist, after Harrap, Lancaster and Anne Lyles, a constable expert, traced the sequence of dazzling oil sketches he made on the spot, following the traces of its long walks, starting from their front doors and descending to the sea or up the hill and down.
Harrap is particularly fond of a small picture with tiny figures of Constable’s wife and children walking through golden fields to a distant church; the fields are just houses now, but that’s the walk Harrap takes every day taking his children to school.
The agent went to Brighton because fresh air was the only cure doctors could suggest for his Maria’s tuberculosis. Some saw her anxiety about her health in the dark skies of Constable in several of her views – although Lancaster said Maria’s health improved greatly at Brighton until the very end.
Maria died in the winter of 1828, leaving Constable with seven children, just weeks after their last return from Brighton. The exhibition also includes a collection of small studies of dock leaves that he took back to his bedroom and painted by his bedside. “You can see them wither and crumble before your eyes,” Harrap said, “life and death, it’s all there.”
- Constable and Brighton, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 8 April – 8 October 2017