When the artist Peter Harrap moved to Brighton, to a narrow street sloping down towards the sea, he set up his studio in an upper room with a north-facing window — and then discovered to his surprise that he was not the first artist to appreciate its airy light. Almost 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 opening on Saturday at the Brighton Museum brings together for the first time a glittering collection of the paintings Constable made in the town, with loans from the Tate, Royal Academy, British Museum, V&A, Cambridge University and many private collections.
Years of research by Harrap and his near neighbour, Shan Lancaster, a journalist, led to the property — at 11 Sillwood Road — gaining a blue plaque when they proved this was the house Constable had rented in 1824, on the first of many stays over the next four years, though then it was known as 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens.
An uncatalogued letter sent by the artist to his wife, Maria, at the house, which Harrap found among the artist’s great-great-grandson’s papers in the Tate archives, had provided the final proof.
Towering waves and beached boats hint at the artist’s empathy with his Sussex home
Harrap described the feeling of working in the same space as an artist he revered as “like a tap on the shoulder.” Lancaster had learned of the connection when she first moved to the street from a passerby, as she was digging in her new front garden. “I was tremendously excited, started rootling about all over the place, but nobody 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 they had any of his works, and was informed there were none. In fact languishing in the stores they had two drawings, now included in the exhibition.
Constable’s paintings of glittering seas, or towering waves and black clouds menacing the fishermen and their boats on the beach, give a more affectionate view of Brighton than initially he had felt for the place.
He wrote to a friend, the archdeacon John Fisher, in August 1824: “I am living here but I dislike the place … Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and offscouring of London. The magnificence of the sea and its (to use your beautiful expression) everlasting voice is drowned in the din & lost in the tumult of stagecoaches — gigs — flys — etc and the beach is Piccadilly (that part of it where we dined) by the seaside.”
The research for the exhibition has identified several of the sites of Constable’s Brighton paintings and drawings, and relocated one work, known as ‘Houses in Hampstead’, to the narrow road behind his lodgings, now full of the back doors of shops and cafes but still recognisable.
Other works were firmly attributed to the artist, after Harrap, Lancaster and Anne Lyles, a Constable expert, traced the sequence of the dazzling oil sketches he made on the spot, by following the tracks of his long walks, starting at their front doors and turning down towards the sea or up the hill and on to the downs.
Harrap particularly loves one little picture with tiny figures of Constable’s wife and children walking through golden fields towards a distant church; the fields are all houses now, but it is the walk Harrap does every day taking his children to school.
Constable went to Brighton because fresh air was the only remedy doctors could suggest for his Maria’s tuberculosis. Some have seen his anxiety over her health in Constable’s doomy skies in many of his views — though Lancaster said Maria’s health did not greatly improve in Brighton until the very end.
Maria died in the winter of 1828, leaving Constable with seven children, only a few weeks after their last return from Brighton. The exhibition also includes a collection of small studies of dock leaves he brought back to her room, and painted by her bedside. “You can see them withering and falling apart before your eyes,” Harrap said, “life and death, it’s all there.”
“Constable and Brighton” is being displayed at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from April 8 to October 8, 2017
By arrangement with the Guardian
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 16th, 2017