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leaping horse constable

It’s as British as you can get; three towering Royal Academicians painting that most British of genres; landscapes. Intimately housed in the Academy’s gilded John Madejski and Weston Rooms, the setting is fairly appropriate too.

I enjoyed this exhibition, but if you’re heading there to marvel at great volumes of work and paintings by the three Masters, you will be disappointed, as one friend I went with announced: “that was the worst exhibition I’ve ever seen”. I think this was a tad harsh but then I don’t know which other exhibitions he’s ever seen.

The bottom line is that there are about six or seven big paintings between Constable, Gainsborough and Turner and the majority of the rest is made up of their influences, contemporaries and followers, so the show’s title is certainly guilty of being misleading. But I think there’s plenty of joy to be had in its intimacy.

From the 17th century to the late 19th century, the art academies of Europe formalised a hierarchy of subject matter in painting, which according to them, determined the cultural significance of the work. Up at the top end of the ladder was history painting (big paintings of historical, mythical, religious or allegorical subject matter) and down at the bottom end was good old still life (fruit… and stuff). In mainland Europe, our Brits and their landscapes would have been regarded somewhere in the middle of this ladder: “the common footmen in the army of art”, according to Samuel van Hoogstraten. But, as this exhibition demonstrates well, since its inception in 1768, the Royal Academy regarded the landscape genre differently. It has always included landscape artists within its membership and has always taken seriously the depiction of nature in a truthful manner driven by often British-based philosophies of aesthetics, the picturesque and the sublime.

Turner Dolbarden Castle

When you look at a Constable, a Gainsborough or a Turner you don’t have to be Brian Sewell to see that you are looking at far more than just a nice spot for a picnic. And if you delve a little deeper, you find with Turner, for example, that there is often an emotional or political significance, as seen in the most recent Bond film. Constable’s landscapes are more sentimental documents of rural life and Gainsborough’s preferred genre is a case study in aesthetics.

Another particular highlight for any amateur artist is the collection of watercolour landscapes and monuments in one of the rooms. As a recent self-taught student of the medium I marvelled for a while at the achievements of the guys from the 18th century, before finally admitting defeat in my own efforts and recognising my eternal consignment to amateurism at best.

The great Hugh Honour said that “the contents of a great art gallery should be sipped, not gulped” and I think the same principle applies to the works of great artists. On that basis there’s some good sipping to be done here.

‘Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape’ is at the Royal Academy until 17th February

by Edward Lines

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