Published: 4 October, 2012
by DAN CARRIER
THERE were tons of toxic fumes belching from factory smokestacks and spilling out of the thousands of coal fires in the hearths of homes every minute of every day.
And the explosion of industry and accompanying slums in the 19th century prompted scientific study into the atmosphere: as lungs burned and eyes smarted, the air, the weather – and human affect on it – became a proto-science for today’s global warming.
Painter John Constable was particularly aware of the dangers of smog. His wife, Maria, suffered from TB and they would spend summers in Hampstead to escape.
Now, his life in the village is the subject of a major show at Burgh House, marking the 200th anniversary of the first time he came up the hill from London.
The exhibition includes the loan of seven original paintings of Hampstead by Constable, and also a series of lectures by Constable experts on the artist.
Professor Stephen Daniels teaches cultural geography at the University of Nottingham and will be talking about “Constable and the Urban Environment.”
Professor Daniels knows Hampstead well: he lived just a few doors down from Constable’s Hampstead cottage in Well Walk while teaching at UCL. He was studying landscape art: “I was inspired by having Constable’s place just down the road,” he admits.
He says Constable’s work in London – and the then country village of Hampstead – is often overlooked, and his life-long interest in meteorology and atmospheric conditions went hand in hand with the work he produced sitting on Hampstead Heath at his easel.
“Constable has always been seen as a rural painter,” he says. “But there is this aspect of Constable that had not been widely researched: namely, his urban work.”
Professor Daniels has studied Constable’s huge range of sketches and paintings completed on the Heath: he would often sit at the same spot throughout the year and mark the changes in the seasons on the Heath, which was still an open space of rural, common land. All feature the incredible skies that put him alongside such artists as JMW§ Turner.
Constable was particularly interested in the skies above Hampstead. The son of a miller, he had grown up in an atmosphere where the weather was of significant importance on a daily basis. He had been influenced by the work of the meteorologist Luke Howard, who classified clouds and spent 40 years carefully detailing the weather patterns in London between 1801 and 1841. This was something Constable loved to do: his sketchbooks are carefully annointed with weather information from the day he sat high on the hills of Hampstead Heath and began working.
“He saw energy in the atmosphere as did other painters of the time, like Turner,” he said. “But while Turner used weather scenes for biblical allegory, Constable had an interest in trying to bring scientific understanding to it.” Yet he could use weather as a sign, a warning.
“In the 1830s, he painted a storm over Salisbury Cathedral,” he said. “It is a storm over Old England, and refers to the Reform Bill. Constable was a Tory and he did not welcome the franchise reforms at all.”
Constable loved Hampstead, says Professor Daniels. “For him, it was the best of both worlds.”
“It was a rural oasis but it was also right by London. He could see St Paul’s from his Well Walk home and he loved painting the city: he did, for example, a series of works of the Thames. His Heath pictures were, at first, highly valued. “But as Suffolk began to be marketed at the turn of the 20th century as a holiday destination and Constable’s works there were promoted as examples of his brilliance, the Hampstead years were slowly forgotten.
But his time in Hampstead was absolutely vital in his trajectory as a painter.”
• Constable: 200 Years in Hampstead runs from Wednesday, October 10 until April 7 at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, NW3 1LT. Open Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, 12-5pm, Saturday 12-5pm, 020 7431 0144, www.burghhouse.org.uk/