8 rooms in Turner Collection
John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows returns to Tate Britain to hang alongside a work by his rival J.M.W. Turner
Fire and Water marks the return of John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows to Tate and the end of its national tour through the Aspire programme.
This work was first shown alongside J.M.W. Turner’s Caligula’s Palace and Bridge at the Royal Academy in 1831. The picture Constable believed would come to be recognised as his masterpiece was hung beside the artist he regarded as his only real rival. Sparking controversy among the artists, the exhibition was a field day for the critics, who seized the chance to compare distinctive pictures by leading landscape painters at the height of their powers. Fire and Water reunites these two works and recreates this pivotal moment.
Art in Fire and Water
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, which Constable began painting in 1830, shows the cathedral from the north-west, looking across the River Nadder from a point near a footbridge known as the Long Bridge. A team of three horses pulls a cart across the river from the left; cattle graze in the meadows in the right distance; and the centre foreground is occupied by a black and white sheepdog whose intent gaze is turned inwards towards the cathedral as if to direct the viewer towards the building or the storm that sweeps over it. The spire pierces a sky full of billowing clouds; a dark rain cloud hangs directly above and a streak of lightning flashes over the roof; but a magnificent rainbow arches over all, promising that the storm will pass. While the tall trees in the middle distance on the left are shaken by a squally breeze, the river’s surface is already glassy and smooth, reflecting the varied sky. Fresh raindrops glint and sparkle on the brambles in the foreground. Throughout much of the canvas, the paint is handled with a febrile, sometimes even frenzied excitement, especially in the foreground undergrowth, the trembling trees and the Gothic architecture of the cathedral. Laid on with brush and palette knife, the paint ranges from thick and three-dimensional in the brambles, to thin and almost translucent in the rainbow. The picture was exhibited by Constable at the Royal Academy in 1831 but never found a buyer. The painting remained in the artist’s studio – where he continued to retouch it – until his death in 1837.
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Caligula’s Palace and Bridge
The subject of this painting is an episode from the ancient writer Suetonius’s ‘Life’ of the Emperor Caligula. Confounding a prediction that he would no more become emperor than ride across the Gulf of Baiae with horses, Caligula constructed an artificial floating bridge of boats which he then crossed with a chariot. Turner has depicted the bridge as a solid construction. It has, however, like the adjacent palace, fallen into ruin and decay. The picture was widely admired in 1831. The Times described it as ‘one of the most beautiful and magnificent landscapes that ever mind conceived or pencil drew’.
Gallery label, February 2016
Art in this room
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