When artist Peter Harrap moved to Hove, he had no idea he was living in the building that once housed renowned landscape painter John Constable. Upon finding out the amazing coincidence, Harrap set about curating an exhibition of Constable’s time in Brighton.
Constable moved here with his family in 1824 after a doctor advised that sea air would be good for his wife Maria’s tuberculosis. He had mixed feelings about the city, giving it the derogatory label “Piccadilly by the sea”. This exhibition helpfully maps out the areas he did approve of, though – namely long trails from Brighton to Devil’s Dyke and along Hove and Brighton seafront.
Constable’s seascapes are unique; unlike the lifelike work of J M W Turner – who was also living in Brighton at the time, although the pair never met here – he often adopted a borderline abstract approach to rendering the coast.
Harrap himself interjects halfway through the exhibition, in video form, to tell us that Constable intended “not to content with nature and put this scene on a canvas of a few inches, but to make something out of nothing, in attempting which he must almost out of necessity become poetical”.
To simplify, Constable meant that his aim was not necessarily to portray any given scene in a naturalistic manner; rather, by use of clever brush strokes, he intended to portray the atmosphere and tone of the Brighton seafront.
This approach is apparent in Rainstorm Over the Sea, in which dark, drastic strokes loom out of the sky. The piece doesn’t resemble an average rainy day, as such, but, as Harrap points out, it has the impression of a storm cloud making its way ominously down the coast. There is an impressive dynamism about the work; it doesn’t look like a static scene.
This is not to downplay Constable’s eye for detail. His depiction of waves crashing onto Hove Beach is remarkable in its meticulousness; even the crest of the wave must have taken the artist a long time to render. Context of the Constables’ time in Brighton is scattered throughout, particularly near the end where the artist’s painting of Maria is poignantly placed next to a description of her husband’s “inconsolable” reaction to her death.
The one disappointment is that more of Constable’s South Downs work isn’t shown; reportedly the artist made more than 100 works in the countryside. This is a minor gripe, though, in a display that reveals as much about Constable’s life as his work.