The Hay Wain, Flatford Mill and Salisbury Cathedral: we all know Constable. Reproductions of his most famous works pop up everywhere, even Banksy has produced a version of The Hay Wain. Dedham Vale, the lovely patch of Suffolk just below Ipswich, derives a large part of its living by being Constable Country. But it isn’t the well-known blockbuster paintings that open this exhibition, rather a selection of paintings by the likes of Rubens and Claude side by side with copies that Constable made with varying degrees of success. When not copying the works of great artists, Constable was outside making studies of clouds or inside sketching them in order to perfect his technique and we see many oil cloud sketches.
After all the copies and clouds you enter rooms filled with the really famous Constable pictures. I have seen countless reproductions of these over the years but when confronted with them in the flesh you really do see the texture and lightness. There are two versions of The Hay Wain on display; a six-foot wide oil sketch that dances with colour and vibrancy together with the far more polished and staid final, famous version.
Finally you come to a room dominated by what looks to be a life-size photograph of a tree trunk but is in fact a painting by Constable; photorealism before the photo was invented. So arresting is this image that Lucien Freud took inspiration from it. Constable, who drew inspiration and instruction from the great painters before him, in turn inspired great artists that followed.
As with most exhibitions you exit through the gift shop. As ever the V&A has come up with a very covetable selection of goods inspired by Constable that goes beyond calendars and post cards. The main shop is so good that I have been known to pop into the V&A purely to shop and drink coffee. The café at the V&A is housed in a series of exuberant Arts and Crafts rooms and, although the food sometimes struggles to meet the quality of the décor, it is always a pleasure to visit.
CONSTABLE: THE MAKING OF A MASTER
20 September 2014 – 11 January 2015
Open daily 10am-5.30pm (Until 9.30pm on Fridays)