Illustrated companion

Although Constable made many drawings and oil studies in the Brighton area this is his only major painting of a Brighton subject. It shows the Chain Pier, which was opened in November 1823 and destroyed by a storm in 1896. On the left Marine Parade stretches into the distance. The large building on the extreme left is the Royal Albion Hotel, opened in August 1826. This painting has the kind of freshness, the brilliant evocation of wind and weather, that caused Henry Fuseli, the Swiss-born history painter, to remark 'I like de landscape of Constable ... but he makes me call for my great coat and umbrella'. It already seems to have too that degree of turbulence, a sense of the darker side of nature, that became even more marked in Constable's work after his wife's death in 1828. The sky in particular is magnificent, and by this stage of his career Constable had become probably the greatest painter of skies in the whole history of landscape painting. This was the result of his belief in the crucial importance in landscape painting of the sky, which he described as the 'key note', the 'standard of scale' and the 'chief organ of sentiment'. He also emphasised that 'the sky is the source of light in nature and governs everything ...' When he wrote this, in a letter to his patron the Reverend John Fisher, he was in fact engaged in making a systematic study of skies. In 1822 he reported to Fisher that he had made about 50 careful sketches of skies, 'tolerably large'. One of the survivors of this group must be the 'tolerably large' oil sketch in the Tate Gallery collection [Tate Gallery N06065]. Like many of his sky studies it was inscribed with almost scientific precision '27 augt. 11 O clock Noon looking Eastward large silvery Clouds [probably, the word is not clear] wind Gentle at S. West.'

Constable appears to have disliked Brighton, at least at first, and in a letter to Fisher of 1824 he amusingly gives vent to his feeling, emphasising the contrast between the magnificence of nature and the mass of people who flocked to what was already a popular resort: 'Brighton is the receptacle of the fashion and off-scouring of London. The magnificence of the sea, and its (to use your own beautifull expression) everlasting voice, is drowned in the din and lost in the tumult of stage coaches ... and the beach is only Picadilly by the seaside. Ladies dressed and undressed - gentlemen in morning gowns and slippers on, or without them altogether about knee deep in the breakers - footmen - children - nursery maids, dogs, boys, fishermen - preventitive service men (with hangers and pistols), rotten fish and those hideous amphibious animals the old bathing women, whose language both in oaths and voice resembles men - are all mixed up together in endless and indecent confusion.'

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.49