Unlike his radical contemporary J.M.W. Turner, John Constable held deeply conformist views; consequently, he has proved less ideologically adaptable to the changing political and religious preferences of historians and critics.1 How did his views affect the way in which he represented the world around him, particularly the relationship between the built environment and the landscape? How in turn does our interpretation of these views affect the way we now see his depiction of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 (Tate T13896; fig.1)? In this painting, medieval building and ancient landscape meld into an organic whole. This was a Tory-Anglican vision painted when both sides of that perspective were under sharp scrutiny by opponents: as such, what looks to later viewers like a prayerful idyll was (and is) a sharply contested space.

John Constable Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831
Fig.1
John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831
Tate T13896

Constable himself had been integrated into the world of Salisbury Cathedral Close by his friendship with Archdeacon John Fisher (1788–1832), with whom he corresponded about a great many issues, not least painting.2 Fisher published little, and he did so out of choice, but his correspondence with Constable reveals both a sharing of ideals and a meeting of minds: Constable was at least as committed to the Anglican vision of the Church and English society as was Fisher himself. The context within which they nurtured their friendship and in which Salisbury Cathedral was painted was a political moment that saw the assumed authority of Church and State providing a battleground on which radicals and liberals, dissenters and religious sceptics laid out a strategy of reform. Reading the correspondence between Fisher and Constable against this context reveals exactly how contested a space, in every sense of the word, Constable’s depiction of Salisbury Cathedral constituted in a troubled period of religious and political tension.3 This essay will open up these contexts and in so doing reveal that Constable’s conservatism was, albeit occasionally, of a paradoxically radical nature. In common with such later pioneers as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) in music, he was a radical conservative, an innovative traditionalist, and this was as true of his cultural politics as it was of his artistic practice.

Cultural commentators tend to prefer radicals over conservatives, revolutionary or otherwise, and they rarely recognise revolutionary conservatives. In a 2014 BBC4 broadcast devoted to Constable, for example, presenter Alastair Sooke was characteristically apologetic about his subject’s (clearly to Sooke) erroneous and distasteful conservative views, although no context was given for those views;4 the idea of Constable’s art as being somehow ‘comfortable’ and politically compromised became a radical orthodoxy: it is also unfairly at play in Mike Leigh’s 2014 film Mr Turner. But was such a view of Constable’s art, before the revisionist decades of art historical scholarship initiated in the 1970s, ever entirely accurate?

Constable’s politics and the influence of John Fisher

In his own lifetime, Constable did not exactly fit into the still gradually unfolding art establishment of the early nineteenth century. It took some time for him to become a Royal Academician, and his work was never exactly fashionable, nor has it ever become so: popular, perhaps, but never fashionable.5 French artists, such as Eugène Delacroix and the landscape artists of the Barbizon School (active c.1830–70), discovered his qualities as a painter well before the English, but it was his strictly ‘painterly’ qualities on which they concentrated. In a sense, Constable was marginalised during his lifetime, only to be absorbed into the cultural mainstream after his death, and more so well into the twentieth century, only to be marginalised again by critics from the 1970s onwards. One of the primary reasons why he was in turn marginalised was because, according to cultural historian John Barrell’s influential account in the last chapter of his The Dark Side of the Landscape (1980), Constable had himself marginalised the rural poor, often literally, in his landscapes.6 This is a heavy critical legacy to seek to revise, however circumspectly, but it is the purpose of this essay to do exactly that.

Marxist critics rarely write what had used to be called ‘high political history’ – that is, the particular and detailed differentiation of parties and interests among a ruling class – as it is considered by them to be an inherently conservative activity and strictly secondary to the socio-economic history of class struggle. Yet this was not the view of such stalwart Tories as Constable and his guide in matters political and religious, John Fisher, nephew of the bishop of Salisbury who commissioned Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds 1823 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). As will become clear, both Constable and Fisher felt themselves to have been marginalised in their own country by what they thought of as the prevailing liberal Whig consensus, which held a critical attitude towards the monopolistic standing of the Church of England. With the exception of the Tories, most saw the Church’s standing as an anomaly in an era of rapidly increasing religious pluralism.

Constable was so strong-minded a Tory that he strenuously opposed the Great Reform Act of 1832, which proposed changes to the electoral system allowing for fairer representation of the people of England and Wales. As Constable wrote to the artist C.R. Leslie, his first biographer, in October 1831:

What makes me dread this tremendous attack on the constitution of our country is, that the wisest and best of the Lords are seriously and firmly objecting to it; and it goes to give the government into the hands of the rabble and dregs of the people, and the devil’s agents on earth, the agitators … No Whig Government ever can do good to this peculiar country.7

It is, therefore, somehow appropriate that Fisher died in 1832. A late representative of the ancien régime that had begun to totter, in wider European terms, in the first year of his life as the French Revolution broke out in 1789, he departed his life at its very close, at least considered in purely British terms, with the passing of the Great Reform Act. In a letter to Leslie from September 1832, Constable recorded his loss, stating of Fisher that ‘we loved each other, and confided in each other entirely, and his loss makes a sad gap in my life and worldly prospects’.8 His mention of ‘worldly prospects’ refers to the fact that it was through Fisher that Constable secured entrée to a number of the great Wiltshire houses, allowing him to copy paintings in their collections, and Fisher effected the introduction that had led to the original commission of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows.

By a curious coincidence, Archdeacon John Fisher shared his name with another Anglican cleric, who held the living of Wavendon in Buckinghamshire, which abutted Fisher’s Berkshire archdeaconry. It is worth occasionally calling on the poetry of this other John Fisher in order to illustrate something of the sort of clerical mind with which Constable was coming into contact; for yet another curiosity is that both Johns Fisher – the one educated at Cambridge and the other at Oxford – held much the same attitude regarding the politics of Church and State.

John Fisher of Wavendon was an occasional poet; indeed, such is the generally low quality of his verse that one is tempted to add that he was only occasionally a poet; on the first of the two occasions that he published his poetry, it was at his own expense. This was his 1821 Residence: Two Letters in Verse, published anonymously in London. It is essentially a defence of the Church of England clergy against the assaults made on their exclusivity and established status by radicals, dissenters, sceptics and such advanced Whigs as the noted reformer Henry Brougham, at the politically and religiously turbulent turn of the 1820s. At times defensive, at others mildly triumphalist, albeit never exactly complacent, Residence is a curious work, at once a call to arms and a defence of his life and values made by a self-consciously rural clergyman, with autobiography uncomfortably melding with establishment polemic in a strangely hybrid form. What is evident throughout is a pastoralist mode: the country is Edenic, the city Satanic. Fisher was acutely aware of the binaries at play in his poem, at the heart of which is a portrayal of the Church of England as a pragmatic establishment, one that seemed to offer a middle way, as he states in Residence in his first letter to his clerical contemporary, ‘Tom’:

Steering our Christian course we kept account
By faith from Paul, and practice from the Mount9

It is as if Fisher was challenging anyone to repudiate the Apostle and Christ Himself as religious and ecclesiological authorities. What he feared was schism, against which he and Tom would now inevitably have to defend both themselves and the Church to which they were dedicated:

And treachery within, and foes without,
Sap her old walls, and compass her about.
Her halcyon days are gone, and fled is peace,
The calmer duties of our cures must cease,
With lifted crook the shepherd must be bold
To chase the wolf – the thief is in the fold.10

The rural idyll is effectively at an end. If the rhythm is Lord Byron’s – and Fisher’s long poem The Honeymoon, composed in the late 1810s in the wake of Waterloo but published in 1840, frequently declares its indebtedness to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18) – the sentiments in Residence are anything but Byronic. They are rather those of two other Romantic poets, both ex-radicals turned thoughtful conservatives: Robert Southey, particularly in his Book of the Church (1824), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, especially as enunciated in his later prose work, On the Constitution of Church and State According to the Idea of Each (1829), a study occasioned by the very same tensions that animated Residence.

Romanticised history invariably underlines the poet Fisher’s words, as when, with reference to Deuteronomy 27:17 – ‘Curst is he that moves his neighbour’s mark’ – he observes:

Amen! and thanks to Alfred mine and large
No wider bounds seek, or ampler charge.11

Alfred, the ninth-century King of Wessex, was a hero to many, radicals as well as Tories; his kingdom encompassed the livings of both Johns Fisher, both of whom would appeal to their idealised, decidedly Tory form of English history when defending their views of religion and politics. At issue in Fisher’s words here is the defence of Church property against the revolt against rural tithes that troubled so much of the English countryside in the 1820s, when dissent and radicalism both challenged the economic privileges of the established Church. By pleading their immemorial standing in his poem, the poet-priest Fisher authorised his claims in a way familiar to debates around the Gothic constitution in Church and State that had flourished from around 1688 well into the age of reform and beyond.12

Painting, poetry and theology

Salisbury Cathedral, as depicted by Constable at the behest of Archdeacon Fisher, stands firm as a rock in a valley not so very far from the symbol of all things corrupt in the secular politics of the same era: Old Sarum. In the painting, the cathedral stands sentinel, square and secure, despite the troubled, if not exactly menacing, skies above. What King Alfred had secured for the poet John Fisher of Wavendon, both as cathedral and bishopric, he had similarly guaranteed for Archdeacon Fisher: security in an age of increasing uncertainty. This troubled sense of clerical entitlement is palpable in the isolated majesty of the cathedral in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows; Constable appears to have incorporated Archdeacon Fisher’s vision of the Church into his own mind, and his eyes and hands respectively reflected and directed this vision onto the canvas. The authority of the cathedral in Constable’s painting is clear, but the cloudscapes he painted in the Cathedral Close at Salisbury were beginning to occlude that vision, at least temporarily.

In The Dark Side of the Landscape, Barrell makes much of the division, and occasional elision, between the georgic and the pastoral: forms of rural poetry revived in the classically minded eighteenth century that addressed the simplicity and innocence of country life, in the case of pastoral poetry, and agricultural topics, in the case of the georgic. Fisher of Wavendon might be seen to favour the pastoral, yet the georgic is never abandoned completely by him, and he was occasionally truthful about the nature of rural poverty, even though he was professionally obliged to identify the Church and the gentry as those who should alleviate it. In this sense he was very much influenced by Archdeacon Fisher’s hero William Paley, the clergyman and philosopher whose Reasons for Contentment, Addressed to the Rural Part of the British Population (1793) advised its readers not to compare their condition with that of the rich, but rather to appreciate how much better off they were than many of their European contemporaries. As Barrell has observed in his study of the 1790s, The Spirit of Despotism (2006), Paley could be seen in this tract as part of a general fear of the French Revolution that allowed even its more liberal thinkers to collude with an increasingly invasive regime, hostile to the rights to privacy so long celebrated as central to the English constitution.13

Paley’s argument that the world implied an intelligent designer whom it was therefore appropriate to worship, as expressed in his Natural Theology, was something also that the young Archdeacon Fisher and many of his contemporaries fully accepted, and which he recommended to a receptive Constable. In short, as the poet Fisher stated in Residence:

My plan of blessedness was never high,
Paley my guide in life’s philosophy.14

Both clerical Fishers had, and repeatedly expressed, their own ‘reasons for contentment’, one in poetry and the other in letters to Constable. Yet it was never the rural poor who made either man fearful; on the contrary, for Fisher the poet-priest, the system of Anglican Sunday Schools and charity schools inaugurated by the Reverend Andrew Bell in 1811 guaranteed exactly the level and degree of contentment advocated by Paley. The result was described thus in Residence:

   Marshall’d beneath the frown or willow-wand,
Adown the nave the Sunday-scholars stand,
And future parish-clerks and masters learn
The loud response, and psalms and prayers to
        turn. –
Accept my brief apostrophe, good Bell!
Of church and state hast thou deserved well;
The bud thou sett’st upon the nation’s germ,
Ages to come shall cherish and confirm;
While embryo Cromwells, in their sceptic schools,
Leave we to atheists and illustrious fools.15

Mobility was strictly circumscribed in this social order, and it was not only religious scepticism that was so roundly repudiated, but also dissent, old and new. The latter of these stood condemned not only socially and religiously, but also aesthetically:

Ye stoled saints and evangelic clerks,
Who warble Watts’ and Wesley’s godly quirks,
Ye may be pure and have intent to save,
But plain it is, that taste ye cannot have.16

Fisher the poet’s aesthetic, in common with that of Archdeacon Fisher, had a political character, and it is one that Barrell would recognise. In Barrell’s The Dark Side of the Landscape there is – along with an occasionally cited Turner – only one artist whom Barrell thinks to have been honest about the plight of the rural poor, namely George Morland (1763–1804), who was subjected to the poet-priest’s censure in his evocation of British art in The Honeymoon. Note here, also, how the spirit of the 1790s dictates Fisher’s response to Morland’s career, and how telling it is in this light that it should be the poet Robert Burns (1759–1796), whose radical politics and anticlericalism deeply disturbed his more conservative contemporaries, with whom the artist is directly compared:

Alas for Morland! Ah! no longer here, –
Thy easel, brush, and palette hang forlorn,
Like helm and breastplate, gauntlet, greaves, and
        spear,
O’er his proud tomb, by whom they once were
worn;
The veriest Burns wast thou from night to morn.
Low-born, did each his way to honour win, –
Low-bred, was each of all good men the scorn;
Held down by habit of debasing sin, –
Unruly power of thirst! each shamed his origin.17

Their notorious drunkenness encouraged Fisher’s high-minded and caste-formed disdain for Morland and for Burns; he reserved his praise for the artist John Opie (1761–1807), while his judgement of portrait painter Thomas Lawrence’s (1769–1830) ‘Siddonian dignity’, with its evocation of the stage, is surely ambiguous, as is his invocation of ‘the dark infernal power of [the artist Henry] Fuseli’ (1741–1825).18 Again, the attitude to artists held by both clergymen was uncannily similar.

Fisher the poet discoursed on art again in The Honeymoon, and what he says might be applied with equal appropriateness to the archdeacon Fisher, a committed amateur painter, and to Constable, the great professional, whose father had originally intended him for the Church:

But who so would enjoy the truth of Art
Must Nature love, and oft at early light
From couch or indolent repose must start,
And climb to meet the sun – the rugged height,
Chasing the vapoury relics of the night
And guiding ruddy health a look more hale;
Must brave the flaky shower, as did the wight
Whose stiffening joints – the deep perspective vale,
Half-sketched – compelled him home, chilled fingers
                                                                    to regale;
Must love by humid ray, the shade to catch
Of object half-defined, – of dotterel old,
Stretching its last grey arm o’er moss-grown
thatch,
Or roof of village church; and pleased behold –
Illiterately lettered o’er with gold –
The churchyard monuments of village
pride19

Much of Archdeacon Fisher’s correspondence with Constable, to whom he became close from around 1811, was about art; equally, much of it was about politics and about religion. The rhythm of Fisher’s vocation and his practice as an amateur painter are laid out side by side in a letter to Constable of 3 July 1823: ‘And now with regard to our meeting, I preach the Infirmary sermon at the cathedral in September. I am beginning to put the colours on my canvas. I should be unwilling to have you before the picture was finished as I must either neglect it or lose the pleasure of your company.’20 The equivalence of such matters for Fisher is most apparent in a letter from Bath of 8 April 1825, in which the archdeacon made a direct parallel between Constable and his beloved Paley, stating of the latter’s posthumous sermons:

They are fit companions for your sketches, being exactly like them: full of vigour and nature, fresh, original, warm from observation of nature, hasty, unpolished, untouched afterwards.21

Similarly, Fisher recommended the naturalist Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789) to the artist ‘because it is in your own way of close observation, and has in it the quality that, to me, constitutes the great pleasure of your society’.22 However, the archdeacon also recorded a major aesthetic disappointment in a letter to Constable from 6 August 1821, reporting a conversation he had had in Salisbury with no less a person than Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

Your letters lay on the table. He said, that there were some parts of your last picture good. I told him that if he had said, all the parts were good, it would be no compliment, unless he said the whole was good. Is it not strange how utterly ignorant the world is of the very first principles of painting? Here is a man of the greatest abilities, who knows almost every thing, and yet he is as little a judge of a picture as if he had been without eyes.23

Idols, even Tory-Anglican ones, could disappoint. Aesthetics and politics could, then, occasionally prove contradictory, and they did not always mesh as securely as Archdeacon Fisher might wish and think.

A shared aesthetics of politics and religion

Constable became a close intimate of the Fishers,24 and so sure was the connection with this established family that he almost took on the archdeacon’s commission of a posthumous portrait of the bishop’s brother, General William Fisher, a man described by Constable to be ‘like the good bishop, mild, sensible, and placid’.25 These were the quiet virtues both Constable and the younger clerical Fisher repeatedly celebrated, and which they plainly identified as Tory and Anglican virtues. Each man regularly supported the other, although both were improvident: Fisher bought The White Horse 1819 (Frick Collection, New York) from Constable when he needed money; the painter bought it back from the archdeacon when he in turn was in need of financial help. Their friendship remained important to Constable long after Fisher’s death; writing to C.R. Leslie in December 1836, he imploringly cited his late friend: ‘Prithee come, “life is short, friendship is sweet”; these were the last words of poor Fisher to me in his last invitation.’26 The roles of priest and teacher were absorbed likewise by the painter in one of his late lectures on landscape painting, when he said:

I cannot better take my leave of you than in the words of my friend, Archdeacon Fisher, who, in an address to the clergy, on one of his visitations said, ‘In my present perplexity, the recollection comes to my relief that when any man has given an undivided attention to any one subject, his audience willingly yield him for his hour the chair of instruction; he discharges his mind of its conceptions, and descends from his temporary elevation to be instructed in his turn by other men.’27

Constable had learned that lesson well, in addition to many ancillary lessons. He was wary of any art which marked its distance from orthodox Christianity, as when he wrote to the archdeacon in May 1824: ‘The world is rid of Lord Byron, but the deadly slime of his touch still remains.’28 The pupil could be even more condemnatory than the master, but he could also occasionally be more reasonable: in February 1823 he sought to restrain Fisher from too gloomily entertaining one of his many favoured themes, ‘The Church in danger’, derived from Queen Anne Anglicanism and revived occasionally in the early nineteenth century by clergy of his Tory turn of mind:

I am sorry to see you again haunted by that Phantom, ‘The Church in danger’; it does not state a just state of mind or thinking. That the vultures will attack it and everything else is likely enough; but you say, they have failed on the State; therefore, it still stands between you and them, they can only fall together. The nobility know intellect, it is always in their way and is the only thing they are afraid of, but they know the value of it, and endeavour to arm themselves from the same sources as you do, the Universities; and consider the ages they have stood, and the storms they have weathered.29

Constable was usually a better-tempered Tory than his clerical monitor, and also more radical; the nobility might let the country down, for whatever purely selfish reason, and they were afraid of the intellect, but the universities would survive their suspicions. The artist may have needed the cleric to secure admission to the seats of the nobility, but he knew better how to secure a necessarily critical distance from them. He regarded the entirely secular Fonthill Abbey at Salisbury, after all, as unreal, describing it as a part of ‘fairy land’, and he was not to be enchanted.30 Salisbury Cathedral, viewed from the fantasy that was the fancifully named Fonthill Abbey, constituted reality.

The friendship of Constable and Archdeacon Fisher became, increasingly, one of equals, and more often than not the friends shared exactly the same views of religion and politics. The poet Robert Southey, although in most respects an ally of Fisher, disappointed the archdeacon in one respect:

Southey is a friend of the establishment: but in one point I think him (with diffidence) wrong. He would adopt the Methodist preacher into the church as an inferior servant. This was the very cause of the corruptions and downfall of the Roman Catholic establishment. For the sake of peace and unity they adopted enthusiasts, received their errors into the Creeds of the Church, and then had to defend them. You cannot make use of the men without receiving their opinions.31

Far from dissenting from such a strong statement against ‘accommodation’ (making space in the Church of England for Methodism) and ‘comprehension’ (absorbing Methodists into the Church), Constable not only agreed with it, but he even added his own reason for doing so:

What you say of Southey is wise, just, moderate, and undeniable. Though he can say much, he cannot gainsay that short sentence of yours. It marks you master of your own profession; and every hour’s experience proves to me that no man, not educated, from his early youth, to a profession, can fully and justly enter into it.32

It would seem that there was even less social mobility in Constable’s universe than there was in Fisher’s. What lay behind such opinions and their pronounced anti-Whiggery was a deep suspicion of the civilised friends of reform who had brought about the modern, revolutionary world in which they themselves suffered. Writing to Constable from Bath early in 1827, Fisher characteristically shared his reading and reflections with his friend:

I have been reading much, lately, on the subject of the French revolution. The Duc de Choiseul was principally, but ignorantly, perhaps, instrumental in bringing it about, protecting and abetting Voltaire and Co. He little thought, that in patronising their licentious pens, he was laying the foundation of the bloody insurrection which was to disperse his gallery of pictures, and send them to be sold to the ‘nation of Shopkeepers’. He it was who banished the Jesuits, the first and necessary step to success in bringing about the change. He died the year before the volcano burst.33

Bourgeois, clerical England, would not, if Fisher and Constable had their anti-reformist way, make any such errors as those that had destroyed the world of the French nobility. Once again, it is the nobility who act not only against their own interest, but also against that of the Church – which they tended to despise – and art ultimately suffers, too. There was a consistency to their ultra-Toryism, however unattractive it might now look to modern eyes affected by Whiggish theories of progress or more radical accounts of that elusive quarry.

Fisher and Constable’s aesthetic vision, based as it was on the idealising, classically poised world of Teniers, both Poussins and Claude, among many others, was, in many ways, a bourgeois vision. And how remarkable it is that when the archdeacon evokes the early years of the primitive Church he seeks salvation within a very Protestant, and very bourgeois, context:

I am shut up in lodgings here, – the walls covered with old masters. I suffer like the Martyrs of old, who had their eyes put out with hot brazen basin, held before their faces. But I am relieved by one picture which I guess to be a Vanderhayden. Is not that the name of the man who painted brick buildings so minutely? It is very true and very delicate, and with pretty light and shadow, but the sky looks as if it had been touched up.34

The consolations of Dutch art from the Golden Age of the seventeenth century recur in the inventory of paintings Constable and Fisher celebrated, both together and separately. In this, their taste was at one with that of a politician who would begin, from within the Tory party, to undo the old order in which both men felt secure: the nucleus of the National Gallery’s Dutch collection was formed from that of the conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. By contrast, Fisher disapproved of the aristocratic portrait culture of the English in the late seventeenth century, as he elided the sins of that culture with the intemperance of the upper classes in his own age: ‘I dined yesterday at the house built by Sir Godfrey Kneller. His descendant, a dandy, has just dissipated the fortune amassed by that man of wigs and drapery. On the great staircase hung a beautiful portrait of Pope, by him. How unlike his usual efforts!’35

Occasionally, as with their criticism of the nobility – subversively English for Constable, vicariously and safely French for Fisher – both men would admit to their bourgeois predilections. More important, however, to both of them, and particularly to Fisher, was a counter-revolutionary evocation of the middle ages; as readers of Sir Walter Scott, both were also enthusiasts for histories of the period. Writing from Salisbury in March 1822, Fisher shared with Constable an extensive version of a favoured theological-cum-historical speculation of his, one that reflects something of the atmosphere of the Salisbury Cathedral painting, and also of the archdeacon’s aesthetic sensibility, which was totally at one with his sense of religion:

It is, as you know, part of the Apocalypse, that the just should reign a thousand years, and then the consummation of all things. In consequence of this prediction during the tenth century there was an universal expectation that the world was about to end. The agitation of men’s minds is described, by contemporary writers, as extreme. Among other effects, which this expectation produced, was the neglect to repair their houses and churches. So that when the dreaded period was past, their buildings were found to be in a most dilapidated condition. The eleventh century was, therefore, much occupied in building, repairing, and beautifying. Hence we know, that few, very few of our buildings can be older than that period. And that the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth, are probable periods to which to refer back many of our most beautiful structures. It was the same cause that enriched the church and made it so powerful. Men, expecting the day of judgment, were glad to compound for their sins by granting away their estates (which could no longer be of use to them or their heirs) to religious purposes.36

This was High Tory clerical history, an aestheticised, historicist theology, and out of it came the sense of beauty that Constable accorded to his painting of Salisbury Cathedral, a subject to which he returned again and again as if repeatedly validating this lesson from Fisher (see, for instance, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds 1823, Huntington Collection, San Marino, and Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden 1826, Frick Collection, New York).

Even in London’s Hampstead, Constable could reciprocate such a vision, writing to the archdeacon in August 1827 of his view: ‘We see the woods and lofty grounds of the East Saxons to the north-east. I read [Sharon] Turner’s History continually, for two reasons: first, I think thereby of you, and secondly, its information is endless, and of the best kind.’37 History such as that written by Turner was not, however, uniquely English, but was derived from a Northern European reaction against the French Revolution. Elements of both fix Fisher’s mood exactly, and by extension that of Constable. It is in precisely this domain, intellectually and aesthetically, that Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows makes most sense as embodying what the radical art critic William Hazlitt – as unlike Fisher and Constable as it was possible to be – was then calling ‘The Spirit of the Age’, more or less a translation of the contemporaneous German term zeitgeist. Yet as Hazlitt himself appreciated, this was an age of transition, and the security of Salisbury Cathedral and the world it represented was no longer as certain as Bishop and Archdeacon Fisher, and their protégé Constable, would have wished.

Notes

  • 1. I wish to thank Ksenia Levina for the incisive scrutiny generously gifted to me and this essay by her artist’s (and art historian’s) eye.
  • 2. For a detailed study of Constable’s connections with the people and landscape of Salisbury, see Timothy Wilcox, Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape, exhibition catalogue, Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury 2011.
  • 3. On the contexts and contours of which, see Arthur Burns and Joanna Innes (eds.), Rethinking the Age of Reform in Britain, 1780–1850, Cambridge 2003.
  • 4. ‘Constable: A Country Rebel’, presented by Alastair Sooke, television programme, BBC4, first broadcast 7 September 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gv42q, accessed 21 November 2016.
  • 5. For more on Constable’s popularity and attempts at election to the Royal Academy, see Amy Concannon, ‘The Painting’, in Amy Concannon (ed.), In Focus: ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ exhibited 1831 by John Constable, February 2017.
  • 6. John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840, Cambridge 1980, pp.131–64.
  • 7. C.R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable [1845], ed. by Andrew Shirley, London 1937, p.269.
  • 8. Ibid., p.289.
  • 9. John Fisher, Residence: Two Letters in Verse, London 1821, p.3.
  • 10. Ibid., p.4.
  • 11. Ibid., p.7.
  • 12. Eric J. Evans, The Contentious Tithe: The Tithe Problem and English Agriculture, 1750–1850, London 1976; R.J. Smith, The Gothic Bequest: Medieval Institutions in British Thought, 1688–1863, Cambridge 1987.
  • 13. John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s, Oxford 2006, pp.224–6.
  • 14. Fisher 1821, p.31.
  • 15. Ibid., pp.23–4. For a comprehensive and brilliant account of the period, see Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846, Oxford 2006.
  • 16. Fisher 1821, p.25. ‘Watts’ and Wesley’s godly quirks’ refers to popular hymns written by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.
  • 17. John Fisher, The Honeymoon, London 1840, p.41.
  • 18. Ibid., pp.42, 44.
  • 19. Ibid., p.36.
  • 20. Ibid., p.143.
  • 21. Ibid., p.186. Fisher goes on directly to hint at a further similarity between the artist and the theologian: ‘There is, prefixed to a new edition of his works, a life of Paley, by his son, in which the inner man is laid open. If you can get it, there are parts that will delight you. He appears to have been a strong-minded, guileless, simple-minded man, who told the truth and declared his honest opinion to every man he met with, friend or foe. Hence he was sometimes in scrapes.’
  • 22. Ibid., pp.11–12. For a contrast with the same area of country – Farnham in Surrey, but bordering on Hampshire – as experienced by Gilbert White and the radical commentator William Cobbett, see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, London 1973, pp.154–71.
  • 23. Leslie 1937, p.115.
  • 24. On the details of which, see R.B. Beckett, John Constable and the Fishers: The Records of a Friendship, London 1952.
  • 25. Leslie 1937, p.75. Constable was both too busy to take up the commission and not as confident a portrait painter as he was a landscape painter at this point in his career.
  • 26. Ibid., p.346.
  • 27. Ibid., p.403.
  • 28. Ibid., p.165.
  • 29. Ibid., pp.138–9.
  • 30. Constable described the two buildings in a letter to his wife of August 1823 as follows: ‘I wandered up to the top of the tower. Salisbury, at fifteen miles off, darted up into the sky like a needle, and the magnificence of the woods and lakes; and the wild region of the downs to the north, and the distant Dorsetshire hills made me long much to be at dear old Osmington, the remembrance of which must always be dear to you and me … The entrance and when within is truly beautifull. Imagine the inside of the Cathedral at Salisbury, or indeed, any beautiful Gothick building, magnificently fitted up with crimson and gold, antient pictures, and in almost every nitch statues; large gold boxes for relicks, etc., beautifull and rich carpets, Curtains and glasses, some of which spoiled the effect. But all this makes it on the whole a strange, Ideal, romantic place; quite fairy land. The spot is chosen in the midst of mountains and wilds.’ Constable in Leslie 1937, p.146.
  • 31. Ibid., p.156.
  • 32. Ibid., p.157.
  • 33. Ibid., pp.185–6.
  • 34. Ibid., p.162.
  • 35. Ibid., p.142.
  • 36. Ibid., pp.124–5.
  • 37. Ibid., pp.220–1.

How to cite

Brian Young, 'Religion and Politics', in Amy Concannon (ed.), In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, Tate Research Publication, 2017, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/salisbury-cathedral-constable/religion-politics, accessed 13 December 2017.