Art Now Live Work: Rory Macbeth: False histories: John Constable

The Mare’s Nest: A History of Provenance
Constable Hampstead Heath with a Double-Rainbow

Please note this history is a work of fiction by the artist Rory Macbeth. See the Tate collection for information about the artwork.

John Constable, ‘Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow’ 1836
John Constable
Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow 1836

John Constable’s view of Hampstead Heath is everything we have come to expect of his oeuvre. What could be a more perfect rendition of the type of landscapes that have come to mean ‘England’? It portrays the point at which old English pastoral landscape meets the new bourgeois suburb of Hampstead: it is the English idyll for the new England.

Yet in 1966, this modest work caused a scandal. A routine x-ray of the work had revealed a drawing of sections of the London Tube map under Constable’s brushwork. Indeed the very painting’s composition is based on it and is clearly visible on the horizon (Central Line), the double rainbow (Piccadilly and Northern Lines), and the foreground (Victoria and Northern Lines).

The technique of x-raying paintings had become a routine aspect of maintenance in the Tate, giving the gallery’s restorers and copyists valuable information about the make-up and technique of the works in their care. It had revealed not only the Tube lines complete with stations marked in, but that it had also been painted with a very different method from all Constable’s other work. X-rays of his other landscapes showed that he constantly changed large areas of the work as it proceeded, idealising and tightening the composition to create the vision of English rural harmony that epitomise his oeuvre. This work however, had very few modifications in the composition from the underpainting to the final surface.

The work was quickly removed, and it was decided that its official copy was in fact the original. During the Second World War, the British Government had implemented a policy of making copies of all major works in the public collections, so that the copies could be safely kept on exhibition to maintain public morale, in spite of air-raids, while the real works were kept safely in Wales, and only changed back once peace was established. Many of the great war artists such as Spencer, Nash and Sutherland were involved in producing these copies (and the influence shows clearly in their post-war work). This particular work was copied by Oliver Monklay, already employed as a restorer at the Tate, but noted as a skilled copyist.

It was asserted that when the works were changed back, Monklay, embittered by the lack of success of his own work, swapped the paintings over, putting his official copyist provenance on the back of the Constable. He was thus able to ensure that his own work could hang in what he considered to be its rightful place – a major public collection. The secret died with him shortly after the war.

Critics rallied against the impostor. Now it was a clumsy pastiche of a Constable – a chocolate-box insult to his oeuvre. Yet not everyone was convinced by the replacement. A detailed examination of the tube map under the painting had revealed some strange anomalies which questioned whether or not it actually was a tube map. Certainly there was a series of pencil lines that corresponded closely to the tube map we know so well. But it is by no means all the lines, and while certain stations are clearly legible (such a St Paul’s, Temple, and Holborn), others are either entirely or partially illegible because of their hasty rendition and the fineness of the line that does not reveal well under x-rays. London Bridge looked suspiciously like London Stone. We seem to have the word mound repeated in various venues (Hampstead Mound, Arnold Mound, Tothill Mound), and there were other ‘stations’ like St Dunstan’s that were real places, but had never been stations.

Sir Anthony Blunt, who had been undertaking a major reassessment of William Blake, had been studying the beliefs of a society of which Blake was a member, the Swedenborg Society – the very society that had commissioned the work from Constable. Much of the Swedenborgian enquiry centered around the concept of Sacred Geometry as laid out by ‘the old straight tracks’. These tracks link points of ancient importance as diverse as Glastonbury Tor (the mound that Blake wrote his famous Jerusalem about) and Stonehenge, to the real Jerusalem, via Cathar strongholds in Southern France. These lines have now been co-opted into the popular notion of Ley Lines (with all the extraterrestrial/conspiracy theory baggage that goes with them), but for the Swedenborgians, the lines that converged on London and its ancient sites were about an essence of spirituality.

So the straight lines under the painting now make a new sense. Converging on London, and linking important sites with straight lines, it is no surprise that it shares names and the general schematic of Beck’s famous tube map. It is a far older map, and one that is entirely compatible with when Constable was working. Indeed it is this schematic that made up the emblem of the Swedenborgians, a W (actually a double V) above a line and an X below. This is a compositional device that occurs in over fifty percent of Blake’s work (usually a figure with outstretched arms).

For the Swedenborgian Society, the double rainbow was seen as symbolic of the spiritual connection of heaven and earth, and earth and heaven. And this of course is what we have in the Constable work. He has used the double rainbow along with the composition of the landscape and the sky to link this idea directly to the very real landscape of Hampstead, one of the sites sacred to this geometry.

Jan Siberechts, ‘Landscape with Rainbow, Henley-on-Thames’ c.1690
Jan Siberechts
Landscape with Rainbow, Henley-on-Thames c.1690

This composition is exactly aped by a painting of Henley-on-Themes by Jan Siberechts.

This work, also commissioned by the Society, shows another point on the greater London Triangle that intersects with a line that goes out to Stonehenge, and it has been suggested that these paintings were to be a suite of landscape paintings that would have stood in the Society’s board room in Bloomsbury, with each work set on the wall in the direction of the line it represents. Other works have not been located, though there is a similarly sized Rubens that conforms to these compositions, that has no definite provenance attached. It is likely that the remaining works were never realised, though newer commissions for the Swedenborg Society by Millais and Hunt of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (The Blind Girl and The Scapegoat) both contain the tell-tale double rainbow, the latter having been painted in Jerusalem at the far end of one of the great lines. And as recently as the 1970s the artist Patrick Hughes was commissioned to paint a series of symbolic rainbow paintings for the Swedenborg Society Museum.

But the real genius of Constable becomes becomes clear in how he has dealt with the Golden Section in this work. The Golden Section is a point about 2/3 along the horizon that was deemed in aesthetics to be the most harmonious place to put a focal point or pictorial device. It is painting’s equivalent of Sacred Geometry. But rather than putting an object such as a tree, or person as a focal point on the Golden Section in the painting, it is a vista extending in a straight line through Hampstead to Aylesbury and beyond. At the visually most harmonious point in the work, is the ‘old straight track’ itself. This is a painting of an invisible line and of a complex belief system linking spirituality with ancient Englishness.

And as to Monklay, his reputation is now not only restored but invigorated by this episode. His copy was of such good quality that it was taken for the original for a number of years, and it is now to be one of the centre-pieces for the new National Museum of the Copy opening in 2008 in Swansea, along with other works from the war-years copying programme.