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Constable's Icon Deserves Respect

The Tate houses the national collection of British art. This is the gallery's centenary; but actually, only its British collection is 100. It began acquiring international modern art in 1917.

Anne Lyles recently took another look at one of the most familiar paintings in the Tate Gallery: John Constable's "Flatford Mill" of 1816-17.

"And I heard a couple behind me, saying 'Oh, it's that "Flatford Mill." You see it on a hundred chocolate boxes!' And they walked straight by. They didn't even look at it." It made Ms. Lyles, who is assistant keeper of the British collection, eager to think - and talk - more about this tour de force of natural painting.

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The mill it depicts belonged to the Constable family business. Its setting is the Suffolk landscape where the artist spent what he called his "careless boyhood" - the scenes that he said "made him a painter."

Experts think Constable painted "Flatford Mill" extensively in the open air. As evidence, Lyles points to "some of the absolutely staggeringly and lovingly observed detail." When he first exhibited it in 1817 at the Royal Academy, Constable called it "Scene on a Navigable River." As with other Constables, a familiar tag has replaced his original title, an indication of his popular status.

Lyles says that she believes there is "a problem with his reputation today. The expressive brushwork of his direct oil sketches is so accessible to 20th-century taste, whereas the large exhibition canvases, like 'Flatford Mill,' put people off. They are like public statements in which Constable is seen striving for recognition." Perhaps it is time to look again at these "finished" paintings.

This one, in Lyles's view, "tells you much about Constable as a man and about his upbringing. It stands at a turning point, at the end of his Suffolk years. It seems he spent a couple of months in 1816 at home at East Bergholt, late July to late September. In May, his father had died. He was left some money and was now in a position to marry Maria Bicknell; they'd been in love since 1809. But I think he knew that once he was married and moved to London, spending long summers in Suffolk would no longer be such an option."

"Flatford Mill" was painted during the next-to-last long summer he spent in Suffolk before he went almost completely into the studio to paint. "With the benefit of hindsight," Lyle says, "it is often read as a sort of valedictory picture."

Lyles's interest in "Flatford Mill" is also based on two recent discoveries connected with it.

One is a small oil sketch for it, long known but confirmed as authentic only within the last few years. It shows how certain subtractions and additions were made as the painting developed.

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The other is a small tracing in pencil on paper of the main lines of the composition, squared up for enlargement. To produce this, Constable "used a rather fascinating device based on something Leonardo recommended. A contemporary of Constable, Arthur Parsey, confirmed that Constable used this device."

Lyles explains: "He placed a piece of glass on his easel. To ensure his position didn't shift, he attached strings to the corners of the glass and held them in his teeth. Using brush and, apparently, printers' ink, he traced onto the glass the contours of the landscape he saw through it.

"He then placed a sheet of paper directly onto the glass and, with the light shining through both glass and paper, he could trace the lines in pencil on the sheet. Because the ink happened to be still tacky, it stuck to the back of the paper.

'SUCH a technique," Lyles says, "fits with an artist who was so fixated on the idea of a 'natural painting' - the idea of painting as directly as possible from the scene itself."

But accuracy was not Constable's sole aim. "If a painting was only literal," Lyles suggests, "it would be too boring as art. It needs to be somehow transformed into art." This was one of Constable's greatest difficulties. Lyles thinks he only resolved it successfully in works later than this.

" 'Flatford Mill' seems to be the largest exhibition picture he attempted mainly from the motif." Although Lyles thinks that, compositionally, it "works for the first time pretty well," it is apparent that for Constable it did not work well enough. After this, he made full-sized sketches to work from as he made his large exhibition pictures. Also, after the painting's first public showing, Constable repainted the sky and the foreground tree.

Lyle agrees that people often seem to think Constable's paintings somehow just happen, magically, to be there. "Yes. They hide their effort. They look so natural and realistic that people think all he had to do was sit there and paint and - hey, presto!"

But there is plenty of evidence that this work was an exhaustive struggle.

Lyles says she feels that finally, perhaps, "there's a little bit too much competition in this picture about which way to look."

On the other hand, she muses that "to build this variety of depth, and all those pathways where you can ramble within the landscape, is quite an achievement. You could say that makes it very rich and satisfying."

Obviously, she believes this is not a painting to simply walk past without a glance.

* Third in a series. Other articles ran April 14 and 21.

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