He has been here and fired a gun

For years we had a very large print on our living room wall by London’s greatest artist, and arguably Britain’s too.

But let’s go back nearly 200 years to 1832 and Somerset House, the former home of the Royal Academy. There John Constable who a decade ago had painted an image, later to adorn every biscuit tin at Christmas, with an idiot getting his waggon stuck in a pond as a boy and dog look on incredulously.

The previous year Constable had had a row with a fellow Academician over him replacing Caligula’s Palace and Bridge with his own chocolate boxy view of a large grey church.

Now, in the gallery of the Royal Academy, before the exhibition commencement, Constable was putting the finishing touches to Opening of Waterloo Bridge, a painting he had worked on for a decade.

I know little about painting, but a few rules I understand. There comes a time when a piece of work becomes overworked, the secret is knowing when to stop. Also, every painting needs a ‘hero’, a point of light, colour or interest to which the eye is drawn before examining the rest of the canvas. This hero should be positioned along the ‘golden ratio’ a point where the eye naturally alights. Numerous mathematical formulae calculate where this falls, but unless you are a master draftsman like Tracy Emin, it’s two-thirds down and one-third across to you and me.

Opening of Waterloo Bridge by John Constable

So here at the Royal Academy is Constable fiddling around with his masterpiece in the last days before public viewing when in shambles the very painter he had argued with this time last year, and whose painting now hung next to his own.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was the antithesis of John Constable. At 56 and only a year older, not that you’d know it, his personal hygiene needed attention, wearing a battered stovepipe hat, an old shiny black coat, and holding a umbrella-cum-swordstick. A large nose, protruding chin and remarkably short, this irascible old man, born in Covent Garden had lost none of his Cockney accent, but he was so confident of his genius he had proclaimed: “I am the great lion of the day”, modesty certainly wasn’t his forte.

Turner stood behind Constable for a time, walked away and returned with his palette and brushes. Walking up to his simple grey seascape, without hesitation added a daub of red, slightly bigger than a coin in the middle of the grey sea, and then left.

Helvoetsluys by JMW Turner

Fellow Academician, C. R. Leslie entered the room and observed how ‘the intensity of the red lead, was made more vivid by the coolness of Turner’s picture…causing Constable’s to look weak’.

Constable exclaimed, “He has been here, and fired a gun”.

Turner didn’t bother to come back for nearly two days, and then, in the last moments that were allowed for painting, shaped the red blob into a buoy.

That simple blob of paint was a bullet across his rival’s bows, showing that less is more. It also goes to explain why every year we have the Turner Prize awarded to the most innovative artists of the day, and not the Constable Prize.

Featured image: Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, 1835 by Joseph Mallord William Turner


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