One of the greatest masterpieces of British art has gone on display in Scotland for the first time in over 15 years this spring. The monumental oil painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, painted in 1831 by the great English Romantic painter John Constable (1776-1837), is being shown alongside one of the most powerful and celebrated of all Scottish landscape paintings: The Storm (1890), by William McTaggart (1835-1910).
This display is part of Aspire, a partnership programme touring Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, exhibited 1831, across the UK. Constables Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, was secured for the British public through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Manton Foundation, Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and Tate Members. Aspire is a five-year partnership project between five partner institutions supported by Art Fund, and by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The tour is designed to share this remarkable painting with as wide an audience as possible and draws upon powerful connections to works in each of the five participating venues.
At 1.5m high and nearly 2m wide, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is one of a series of monumental six-footer canvases painted by the iconic artist arguably the greatest of them all. Painted three years after the death of his beloved wife Maria, the spectacular painting is laden with personal meaning and is the work he regarded with the greatest pride, referring to it as the Great Salisbury.
The artist and his wife had visited Salisbury during their honeymoon, and it became a place of solace for Constable after Marias death. The painting depicts a turbulent landscape of raging, stormy clouds which reflect Constables state of mind: his grief at the death of Maria, as well as his concerns regarding contemporary political and social changes which he felt threatened the future of the Anglican Church and rural life. Yet a magnificent rainbow spanning the composition seems to offer a note of hope, promising that the storm will pass.
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 but met with a mixed critical reception and never found a buyer. Constables use of white highlights and his dramatic treatment of the sky were particularly controversial. The work remained in the artists studio, where he continued to retouch it, until his death six years later.
Constables work was a source of profound inspiration for William McTaggart, both on an artistic and personal level, and seeing these two imposing canvases side by side demonstrates the transformative influence of Constables work and techniques on the younger artist.
Often dubbed the Father of Scottish Painting, McTaggart took the chance to see Constables work wherever he could. He would have seen Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows in 1857, when it was exhibited with six other Constables at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition.
The 1880s provided McTaggart with more opportunities when 118 works by Constable went on show at the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (later the Royal Museum of Scotland) between 1883 and 1887. McTaggarts style changed around that time, and it is highly likely that this resulted from his close observation of Constables technique through the works on display in Edinburgh. He had first tackled the subject of The Storm on a smaller scale in 1883 but witnessing Constables large oil sketches may have influenced his decision to paint the larger version on show here, which was to become one of his greatest pictures.
McTaggart's energetic brush work and bold colour illustrate the elemental force of the thunderous sky, lashing wind and turbulent sea. A tiny fishing boat struggling at sea and the launching of a rescue boat from the shore poignantly convey man's vulnerability and courage in the face of Natures fury. McTaggart's depiction of the approaching storm closely recalls Constables Great Salisbury; like Constable, he varied his brushstrokes, in order to capture the different textures of sky, sea and land.
McTaggart certainly appreciated Constables insistence on painting outdoors and studying nature directly in the open air, the importance of skies in composition, of avoiding imitating other peoples work, and the value of wind, light, air, freshness and movement in landscape painting.
Tricia Allerston, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Scottish National Gallery
, commented: We are delighted that Constables Great Salisbury is coming to Scotland. It is a landmark painting which complements and enriches the permanent displays at the Scottish National Gallery. In addition, and most excitingly, its arrival also gives us an opportunity to explore the impact of one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century on one of Scotlands truly important artists.