Tag Archives: Essex

Ford Madox Brown – Capturing the Atmosphere: Walton-on-the-Naze and The Hayfield

29 Aug

Ford Madox Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze (1860)

The final days of August are always tinged in melancholy. Summer is not yet gone, and autumn has not yet arrived. The rich and vibrant facade of summer is slightly cracking and a yearning for what once was fills the cracks, and even a sunny, warm day or the beauty of a blooming rose are haunted by a feeling of nostalgia for the passing summer. The first rain, or a gust of wind, the first sight of yellow leaves on a chestnut tree all seem ominous of what is to come. This mood inhabits some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and two of such examples are landscape scenes by Ford Madox Brown. His paintings “The Hayfield” and “Walton-on-the-Naze” both possess that rich yet wistful ambience. Most of the painting “The Hayfield” was painted slowly and patiently during a period of time from late July to early September and, following the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy of painting directly from nature, Brown would walk miles and miles from his house two times a week to a spot where the scenery was the most delightful. Waiting for the perfect light, he would start painting at 5 am. The twilight scene shows the end of a working day; the moon had just risen but there is still enough daylight to reveal the scene to our eyes. The farmers are slowly getting ready to go home, there are children sittin in the haycart and one man is gazing up at the moon. You can feel the chill in the air, the slightly damp, cold grass, children’s cheerful chatter… The colours of the painting proved to be controversial, just as was the case with John Constable’s landscape some years before, but Brown stated in the catalogue for the painting that: “the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight”. This shows us that the Victorian audience had a perception of reality and nature different to what it really was and they didn’t want to see the reality in art, but rather their dreamy vision of the world around them.

The painting “Walton-on-the-Naze”, painted during Brown’s visit to this small coastal town in Essex in August 1859, again features the motif of a rising moon and the gorgeous effect of light. This might be his most beautiful landscape because the ephemeral light and the effect of depth are just mesmerising. The air seems soft, rosy and palpable and the rainbow in the sky adds a whole new dreamy dimension to the scene. I had had the luck of seeing the rainbow but a few weeks ago and its beauty still charms my memory. The male figure is the portrait of Brown himself and the female figure is Brown’s wife Emma. The little girl is their daughter Catherine. The beautiful visual rhythm of the stacks of wheat in the foreground may reminds us of the harvest time and the work that is to be done, but this painting isn’t the harvesting type like the previous one, but a touristy type because Brown and his family were on holiday in that coastal town when he painted it and this reflects the Victorian discovery of coastal towns and the sea as places for leisure, rest and fun. Londoners could have easily reached the coast via a steamer train and one is seen in the background of this painting. Even Elizabeth Siddal and Rossetti stayed on the sea for her health around the same time. The layers of depth in this painting are superb, I mean just look at the ship disappearing on the horizon, a pink sky behind it, how utterly dreamy.

Ford Madox Brown, The Hayfield, 1855-56

John Constable – Romantic Ruins of Hadleigh Castle

6 May

Sublime landscapes with romantic ruins are what fills my heart with delight, for nature by itself is plain and mundane. Ruin of a Medieval castle or an abbey overgrown with ivy, lovers sitting in forest glades bathed in silvery moonlight, rivers whose calm flow brings forgetfulness, sight of a lonely figure amidst wild nature; a landscape unadorned with any of these things seizes to excite me. And is there a better age in art for all these qualities than Romanticism?

John Constable, Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9, London, Tate Gallery

John Constable’s aim in painting landscapes was to capture the nature with honesty, to capture its beauty and simplicity without showing off in an arrogant Turner way. He is not the representative in portraying nature with passion, lyricism or melancholy; you should seek those qualities in paintings of Turner, John Martin or Caspar David Friedrich, but at one point, in 1828, he felt that his life and art were in a state of ruins and he sought in nature a vision of his own soul and he found it in a desolate scene of a Hadleigh Castle in Essex.

The brooding tower is a sinister sight indeed, seen after a stormy night; wrapped in dark thoughts, breathing in the air of decay, its glory days forgotten and only a corpse of stone walls remains, the crows flying by its only friends in centuries of solitude… The sky is a commingled mass of whites and blues, and the marshlands are drowning in darkness. A vague figure of a shepherd with his dog in the left corner, and cows and cliffs painted carelessly. The most peculiar thing about this oil sketch is the way it is painted; almost expressionistic with those thick, careless brushstrokes, heavy, thickly impasto way of applying colour with no constraint. And it’s sublime and sombre mood has since drawn comparisons to Rembrandt’s “The Mill” (1645-48). The scene seems so out of place in Constable’s usual peaceful countryside scenes painted in a very detailed way with fine brushwork, that one can’t help but wonder about this strange change of style and theme.

John Constable, Maria Bicknell, 1816

This peculiarly dark mood of the painting is caused by the events in Constable’s private life. His dear wife Maria, who was of fragile health, fell ill after giving birth to their seventh child in January 1828, and in November the same year she died from consumption. Constable was devastated; he started dressing in black and  succumbed to melancholy. The death of his angel, as he called her, changed everything. They married in autumn of 1816, when he was forty years old, after their friendship grew into deep love. But now, after only twelve years of happiness, Constable was a lonely, depressed figure, wrapped in gloomy thoughts, tormented by anxiety and brutal self-questioning of his life and career. Nothing made sense any more, and he wrote in a letter to his brother Golding “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel—God only knows how my children will be brought up…the face of the World is totally changed to me“.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, sketch, 1814

As you can see from the rather small pencil sketch, about 8 x 11 cm, Constable had visited the sight way before he decided to fully devote to it and paint it on a large, six foot canvas in oils. It seems to me that the distance between two towers is bigger in the drawing than it is in the paintings. Perhaps the reason why he returned to the subject of the Hadleigh Castle after fourteen years lies in the fact that while he visited it for the first time, in 1814, he rapturously wrote to Maria of its beauty. This is what he wrote, on 3 July 1814: “At Hadleigh there is a ruin of a castle which from its situation is a really fine place – it commands a view of the Kent hills, the Nore and North Foreland & looking many miles to sea.” After she died, he may have revisited their correspondence, and with tears glistening in his eyes remembered the happier times, and he may have seen the castle as a symbol of those times.

I love the sketch, specially the birds flying around the tower and the clouds, and something about it appeals me more than the finished painting. I know what it is; in the drawing there is no figure of a shepherd and the cows; a motif so utterly Constable and so unfitting for the Gothic mood of the sublime. As much as I like the painting, I would have preferred to see it painted as a nocturnal scene, in dark magical blues with large moon shining on the horizon and a distant figure of a horseman, and the moonshine peeking through the old ruin of a tower, but that wouldn’t be Constable any more.

John Constable, Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames–Morning after a Stormy Night, 1828-29

Now you can see what an impact personal life and tragedies can have on an artist, and that even a simple landscape is filled with secrets that leads us to the artist’s soul. Constable’s saddest state resulted in what is perhaps the most poetic, the most ‘sublime’ out of all his paintings, but the wild and gloomy sketch version from the Tate Gallery isn’t the only one. He painted another version of the same scene, pretty much the same, which is more in tune with Constable’s typical refined, sleek style; gloom is subtler, brushstrokes are more controlled, and you can see the details more clearly, such as the shepherd and his dog, and the cows, even the sky looks softer and less threatening. So there is a ‘passionate’ version and a ‘tamed’ one. Needless to say which one I prefer.