With his rich and beautiful oil paintings of Salisbury Cathedral and The Hay Wain adorning 21st-century mouse mats, T-shirts and mugs, it’s hard to think of John Constable today as a radical artist.

But while his contemporary JMW Turner was making money from selling his paintings pretty much throughout his career, Constable remained ignored by collectors – reportedly only selling 20 paintings in England in his lifetime, despite a healthy market for his paintings on the Continent.

“In many ways he was far more radical than Turner,” says Andrew Loukes, house and collections manager at Petworth House, who has curated the Constable At Petworth exibition. “He was far more single-minded in the sense he was determined to represent the English landscape with a fresh and naturalistic approach.”

When Constable was invited to Petworth in 1834 he had finally started to break through – having been elected to the Royal Academy in 1829, and won a medal for The Hay Wain in 1824 after it was exhibited at the Paris Salon.

“Increasingly, members of the rising British middle class were beginning to buy his paintings,” says Loukes. “The main artistic groups were still grounded in the 18th century. “Constable was interested in painting things as he saw them, and using his paint in an expressive way – a much more dynamic and modern approach.

“When Turner painted the English landscape there was always a wider moral significance to the way he treated it – there is an obvious narrative. “Constable was much more direct and straightforward, and many collectors struggled with that. They couldn’t see the point of his big paintings.”

That confusion extended even to the art-loving owner of Petworth House, George Seymour, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, who opened his home to Constable in the last three years of the artist’s life.

“Even the 3rd Earl didn’t buy anything from Constable,” says Loukes. “But he obviously thought enough of him to put him up for a couple of weeks and give him the resources to make his work.”

In the early 19th-century Petworth had become something of an open house for artists, with the 3rd Earl inviting them to stay in the house, allowing them use of his library and art collection and even laying on carriages so they could explore the surrounding countryside.

“It’s often tempting to think of them as a bunch of young art students in a country house,” says Loukes. “But these were very established, respectable figures, who took full advantage of what was on offer.

“Many of them were great names in their own lifetime. Because of changes in fashion and art people have largely forgotten Charles Leslie, portrait painter Thomas Phillips or 19th-century sculptor Francis Chantrey.”

Visiting Petworth

The 57-year-old Constable took some convincing to visit Petworth – needing gentle persuasion from his friend Leslie.

“Constable was from a wealthy middle-class background, and was nervous of grand artistic types such as the 3rd Earl,” says Loukes.

“The visit came at a time when Constable was in low spirits – he was suffering from poor health with what we now think was angina and anxiety attacks.

“When he came here though he really relaxed and enjoyed the place. Initially he only intended to stay for a couple of nights, but he ended up staying for two weeks – longer than Turner.”

In total Constable made three visits to Petworth – two in 1834, and another the following year. The exhibition features works created on all three occasions, as well as material painted while staying in Arundel with his friend the brewer George Constable.

These pictures are being brought together for the first time ever, and what is even more unusual is their medium.

While Constable is best known as a pioneering oil painter, this exhibition shows he was also a proficient draftsman and watercolour artist.

“This is a collection of private works which weren’t intended for public exhibition or sale,” says Loukes. “These are Constable at his most expressive and personal. They reveal much more about him. The vast majority have hardly been exhibited at all, and certainly never as a group.”

Rare works

Numbering more than 40 watercolours and drawings, the exhibition features loans from the V&A, British Museum, Tate, Royal Academy and British Library in London and Liverpool’s National Museums.

Rarely-seen views of Petworth House and park sit alongside images of nearby villages Tillington, Fittleworth and Bignor and local landmarks including Chichester Cathedral and Cowdray House.

The final work in the exhibition is a study of Arundel Mill and Castle which was later worked up to become one of Constable’s final oil paintings.

“It was the final piece that Constable worked on before he died,” says Loukes, adding the completed oil, which is now on display at the Toledo Museum Of Art, in Toledo, Ohio, was exhibited posthumously in the year of the artist’s death at the Royal Academy.

“Constable genuinely felt an affinity with the West Sussex landscape – he was forever coming out with statements about how it had some of the most exciting natural scenery he had ever seen. “It comes across in the depth of expression in the works.”

Putting the exhibition together over the space of two years has led to some mysteries being solved.

“There’s a watercolour which belongs to the V&A which up until now was known as View Of Downland Country,” says Loukes. “We know now that it is actually a view from Petworth Park looking towards the Surrey hills, which he did here in Petworth.

“Similarly there’s a wonderful drawing on loan from National Museums Liverpool of an old derelict farm on Lord Egremont’s estate. “We have now confirmed it as The Grove Inn [the 17th-century pub on the outskirts of Petworth] – so people can go for a tour and a drink after the exhibition.”

Alongside the artworks the exhibition also has a 16th-century manuscript which Constable acquired while on a visit to the ruins of Cowdray Castle with Phillips and Leslie.

“It demonstrates his interest in English antiquity, which is reflected in the other watercolours he was making at the time of places such as Stonehenge,” says Loukes, who adds there’s also a Constable drawing, loaned from the British Library, of a Saxon excavation at North Stoke with the artist’s own accompanying notes.

Rooms to explore

Alongside the exhibition, Petworth House is opening some rarely seen rooms to underline the experience Constable would have had at the country retreat.

“We want to showcase some of the paintings we suspect he knew and responded to,” says Loukes.

“There are paintings by Claude, Jacob van Ruisdael and Gaspard Poussin that were important to him, as well as numerous paintings by friends and associates.”

As with the Turner exhibition, the Old Library is also open for guided tours.

“It really was an artist’s studio at the time,” says Loukes. “We don’t know whether Constable painted in there, but he certainly painted in whichever bedroom he was staying in at the time, as Leslie left an account of it.

“The Old Library contains many fabulous and fascinating books – like Turner, Constable was a literate man, and very interested in books about history. “He would certainly have spent some time in there – it is a wonderfully atmospheric space and largely unchanged from how it was in their time. It’s almost like a time capsule.”

Loukes hopes this won’t be the last Romantic artist to be celebrated at Petworth.

“We are very ambitious to continue with a whole series of temporary exhibitions particularly from that period,” he says. “It is so relevant to the history of the house.”

A potential follow-up could be another Turner collection, underlining the number of visits the artist made to Petworth.

Or there is another Old Master with strong associations to Petworth – the artist and poet William Blake, who rented a cottage in Felpham between 1800 and 1803. Watch this space.

  • Constable At Petworth, Petworth House, Petworth, Saturday, January 11, to Friday, March 14
  • Open 10.30am to 4.30pm, tickets £12/£6. Call 0844 2491895.