Updated: Dec 11, 2018
To those of us who braved the weather on Friday afternoon we were rewarded with a thought provoking talk given by Tony Pryke entitled “Letting go and holding on”. That was in short, based around one of his painting heroes John Constable and the associated ‘Romantic‘ art movement of the early 19th century.
Tony went on to explain that the word ‘Romantic’ when describing the art, literature and music, of the early 19th century, all shared certain characteristics; predominately the artist's personal feelings of emotion, drama, and their affinity for the natural world that surrounded them.
This linked aptly to the title of his talk “Letting go and holding on”, in that artists of the ‘Romantic’ period let down their guard, to express and portray through their art, the emotional feelings they were experiencing, yet at the same time holding true to good painting principles. Their art was not purely a photographic portrayal of their subject matter but also an opportunity to use their artistic license to portray the scene to its best compositional and narrative storyline.
Tony chose to illustrate this with the work of Turner, Constables contemporary and rival with his painting of 'The Fighting Temeraire', where Turner pays tribute to the Temeraire’s heroic past.
But Turner employed dramatic, artistic license in his depiction. It was an event that occurred but it was not a factually accurate depiction of the scene. Turner wanted to portray to the viewer how Britain had seemingly turned its back on a ship that had served her country well. He did this in the following ways:- The Temeraire is depicted as a “shimmering, noble” ghost ship being towed to her imminent demise behind a dark, sturdy tug that billows out fiery smoke. (Sail giving way to steam power and progress.) She is depicted with all three of her masts and rigging, where in actual fact they had been removed and recycled before she arrived on the Thames. Turner chose to depict her in white and gold paint rather than the darker black and yellow she actually was in real life. This he believed helped idealize her memory. Even the location of the sunset is not geographically correct having been moved by Turner to improve the composition.
In contrast Constable’s art was a quiet, honest depiction of the English landscape and agricultural technology of this time. To illustrate this Tony showed the ‘Hay Wain’ which Constable had painted in 1821, alongside recent photos of Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s cottage which we are still able to recognize today as the location for Constable’s painting.
Constable strove to capture humans and nature in a fleeting moment in time, which is perfectly illustrated in this painting “Boat Building on the River Stour”. A quiet peaceful scene of a man building a boat in the Stour valley, however it has a strong emotional impact on the viewer.
Constable worked predominately outdoors compiling images in his sketchbook before finally coming into the studio to paint. He sought to capture the subtle effects of light and shade. His most ambitious works were a series of six foot paintings where he decided he would make a full size oil sketch, ironing out the finer points of composition and atmosphere prior to the finished painting. Indeed the freedom and looseness of brushwork in these sketches are today praised just as highly, if not higher than their finished equivalents. (The loose brush work perhaps more in keeping with tastes today.)
This fascination to capture light and atmosphere in his paintings turned somewhat darker and more somber following the death of his wife Maria. “Hadleigh Castle” illustrates this, as he “lets go” giving a desolation and darkness to his subject matter while still “holding on” to his good painting practices.
Unrecognised by the establishment till late in his career, his paintings have however stood the test of time and have become iconic symbols of the romanticism and beauty of the English countryside.
Tony sums up that it doesn’t matter whether art expresses its emotion with quiet dignity or with a resounding roar so long as it is comprehensible to the viewer, and with that he urges us to “Let go and hold on”. Expressing that if as a result, people refer to you as an "old romantic", smile and take it as a compliment!
Additional info can be found on Constable through the following links.