Constable’s masterly brush stroke developed in Hampstead

The Romantic painter came to Hampstead to improve. Now his works have been brought home

John Constable came to Hampstead with a purpose: to improve his painting. Up until 1819, his landscapes had been unsatisfactory to him, particularly the skies.

When he arrived in the area, he wrote: “I have settled my wife and children comfortably in Hampstead Heath. I am glad to get them out of London for every reason.”

At that time, Hampstead was practically a rural area: livestock would even graze on the Heath. Constable used the area to explore the weather, in the hope that it would improve his painting. “His father was a windmiller and so he had some experience with weather systems and interest in the topic already,” says Rebecca Lodge, curator of the Constable in Hampstead exhibition. “It was unexpected that, as a Romantic, he would take an interest in an exact science like meteorology. But he hoped that knowledge of weather systems would really improve the way he painted the skies. He felt that knowledge would bring him closer to depicting reality, so in that sense he bridged the gap between the Romantics and science.”

Much like many today, Constable found the Heath a convenient place to be – it was close enough to London for him to access the city, where he was trying to establish himself as an artist and win favour with the Royal Academy. “He wasn’t as wild as Turner, he was a little bit more sensible. He wanted to be a full member of the RA, something that Turner achieved quite early on and that he didn’t achieve until the 1830s,” says Lodge. In the coming years, Constable would produce some of his now most famous works, painting The Hay Wain in 1821, where marked improvement can be seen in his depiction of clouds and weather.

In addition to his painting, he became actively involved in local life and lectured on painting and the study of clouds and the sky to the Hampstead Literary and Scientific Society. It was while living in the village that he developed his technique for capturing these elements on canvas; he also represented a number of local houses and streets in his work.

The neat exhibition at Burgh House sees Constable’s work in its context. There are two oils, Sketch at Hampstead, Stormy Sunset painted in 1820 and The Grove, or Admiral’s House, painted in 1821 and a number of sketches. “He sketched over periods of time rather than in a snapshot to try to capture the weather sequences,” says Lodge. “His oils were the sky studies and his sketches were mainly of the trees. Because of the hilly terrain, he got to see more of the skies in a way, so this helped him.”

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Even today, Constable’s representations of the area help the Hampstead Heath managers to piece together its interesting history – something that, at the time, the painter in his haste to improve may not have imagined doing. Hampstead gave him space to improve. Now, the lesser known studies that helped him to produce his masterpieces have been brought home.

Constable in Hamsptead is at Burgh House