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1831 Turner and Constable as "Fire and Water"

A spectacular arrangement of work by J.M.W. Turner and John Constable awaited visitors to the 1831 Exhibition. The Morning Post described it thus:

162, 169, 178.—The three Pictures to which these numbers are attached are among the most remarkable in the Exhibition. They are Landscapes of the largest size, and are hung together at the upper end of the large room, occupying nearly three-fourths of its entire width.1

Positioned “immediately between” two blazing canvases by Turner, Caligula’s Palace and Bridge (Fig. 1) and The Vision of Medea, was Constable’s cool-toned six-foot painting, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (Fig.2). According to the same review,

three productions more strongly bespeaking the hand of genius, betraying more glaring defects, or fraught with more redeeming beauties, will not easily be found.2

Both artists were, by now, accustomed to reviews that highlighted their merits as much as their foibles but the 1831 Royal Academy hang prompted a perceptual shift that hauled Constable up alongside Turner to be lauded and berated as his equal. This was a clash of “[f]ire and water”, “all heat” to “humidity”, a show of “Turner’s fire and Constable’s rain”, metaphors that deemed them titans of equal ability to harness distinct natural forces.3 Never before had a more lively, direct, and sustained comparison of their work taken place. This was surely gratifying for Constable, who had long laboured in Turner’s shadow, harbouring a mix of respect and resentment towards the painter he once referred to as “he who would be Lord of all”.4 The 1831 hang and its reception proved Constable to be no disciple of Turner’s but instead a champion of his own brand of landscape painting.

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It was perhaps all part of Constable’s plan. As a member of the Hanging Committee that year, he had placed Salisbury Cathedral (without its rainbow, which was likely added later) in the prime position.5 This was his most ambitious painting to date, intended to show his versatility and worthiness as a recently elected Academician. The political statement it made—defending the church’s ability to weather threats to its authority—was amplified by its location in the centre of the most attention-grabbing wall of the Great Room. To achieve this, however, he had switched out one of the two Turners it hung beside (it is not known which), putting Salisbury Cathedral in the middle.

If Constable was able to hold his own against Turner on canvas, he was apparently unable to do so face-to-face. At a party hosted by the MP and army General Edmund Phipps (1760–1837), Turner, prompted by Constable’s boasting of the “disinterestedness” with which he had carried out the “Sacred Duty” of the hang, apparently came “down upon him like a sledge-hammer”. The Landscapist David Roberts, undoubtedly biased towards his friend Turner, wrote that Constable “wriggled” and “twisted” “like a detected criminal”. The insertion of Constable’s dark, thunderous landscape may well have better distinguished Turner’s two gold-hued pictures but Constable was unable to persuade the party of his selflessness.6 The notoriously caustic critic Edward Dubois furthered this character assassination, perceiving jealousy in the poor display of works by younger landscapists like F.R. Lee, who was not permitted to “outrun the Constable”. “When it comes to hanging,” wrote Dubois, “as when a landscape painter has the hanging of a landscape painter, the strangulation is complete.”7

Roberts’ account of the dinner party works with the critical framing of Turner and Constable as painters at loggerheads, a clash of “fire” and “water”. Like much exhibition criticism of the time, however, this elemental analogy addresses only the formal expressions of their subjects; conceptually, Salisbury Cathedral and Caligula’s Palace have much in common. By reference to the past—in Turner’s case the hubris of Roman Emperor Caligula and in Constable’s the longevity of Christianity in Britain—both paintings speak to a present in the grip of uncertainty and on the brink of major change. Revolution was coursing its way through Europe once more and pressure for political reform in Britain was mounting: just as in 2018, the political landscape of 1831 was very much in flux.

Turner had himself depicted Salisbury beneath the winds of change in his print for Picturesque Views of England and Wales.8 In Salisbury Cathedral, Constable was presenting an academically ambitious reinvigoration of antiquarian subject matter painted with a power perceived to rival Turner’s. Was Turner’s teasing of Constable over the 1831 hang rooted in a sense of threat? We might read Turner’s inclusion of a Yarmouth Pier painting in the 1831 Exhibition in this way—it is possible he knew Constable was preparing a Yarmouth subject and submitted his own through a wish to assert his superiority as a marine painter.9

In 1832, Turner escalated the competition by adding a small red daub of paint to his pastel-coloured seascape, Helvetsloeys. With elegant but savage simplicity, it detracted from the scattered red accents in Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge. “Turner has been here, and fired a gun”, said Constable.10 Arguably, through such a powerful statement of academic ambition as Salisbury Cathedral and its hanging at the Academy of 1831, Constable had fired the first shot.

  1. The Morning Post, 2 June 1831, 3.↩︎

  2. The Morning Post, 2 June 1831, 3.↩︎

  3. The Literary Gazette, 14 May 1831, 315; The Englishman’s Magazine, I, June 1831, 323.↩︎

  4. John Constable to John Fisher, 23 January 1825 in R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, 1967), Vol. 6, 191.↩︎

  5. For the addition of the rainbow, see Amy Concannon, “The Painting”, and John Thornes, “Reassessing the Rainbow”, in Amy Concannon (ed.), In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable (Tate Research Publication, 2017), (accessed 22 September 2017).↩︎

  6. David Roberts in Walter Thornbury, The Life and Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1862), Vol. 2, 45.↩︎

  7. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1831, 3.↩︎

  8. William Radclyffe after J.M.W. Turner, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 1830, line engraving on copper for Picturesque Views in England and Wales, image size 167 x 239 mm, Victoria and Albert Museum, E.3235-1946.↩︎

  9. Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 189.↩︎

  10. The phrase “friendly contests” comes from George Jones, MS “Recollections of J.M.W. Turner”, in John Gage (ed.), Collected Correspondence of J.M.W. Turner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 5. For the 1832 episode, see David Solkin (ed.), Turner and the Masters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain (London, 2009), 188–189.↩︎

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