A detail from Turner's “War, the Exile and the Rock Limpet”.
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Mark Lawson: Turner and Constable rarely spoke to each other, but their pictures do

An accident of gallery scheduling means that London currently has a sort of early-19th-century chat show in which the two painters converse.

The jargon of art curation includes the concept of “conversation”, in which pictures are arranged to talk to – or against – each other. By an accident of the gallery calendar, two of London’s biggest picture palaces have created a sort of early-19th-century chat show in which two painters and many paintings converse with revealing nods of the head and a few intriguing shakes.

John Constable (1776-1837) and J M W Turner (1775-1851) have always invited twinning, born a year apart and then, in their artistic afterlives, competing for the position of the most-loved depicter of England. In a Today programme poll of “the greatest painting in Britain” in 2005, Turner’s Fighting Temeraire beat Constable’s Hay Wain into second place, an image of the seas around England trumping a picture of the fields within.

Yet, although the double act is long established, their coincidental new shows – “Constable: the Making of a Master” (Victoria and Albert Museum, until 11 January 2015) and “Late Turner: Painting Set Free” (Tate Britain, until 25 January 2015) – constantly suggest new overlaps and debates. Competitive by nature, the men sometimes tackled identical subjects in turn – Waterloo Bridge, Salisbury Cathedral, Brighton Beach – and both favoured extreme research. While the curators question the legend of Turner lashing himself to a ship’s mast in a gale to scout a seascape, he certainly favoured al fresco sketching, as did Constable, who once stood through a Lake District storm, as evidenced by rain stains visible on the canvas. Spookily, Constable, in a self-portrait early in the new exhibition, strikingly resembles the young Timothy Spall, who plays the ageing Turner in Mike Leigh’s movie released next month.

The exhibitions repeatedly reveal deep resonances between the contemporaries. “The Making of a Master” makes a particular point of Constable’s dialogues with the Old Masters – we see works by artists such as Rubens and Claude that he took on – but “Painting Set Free”, though less programmatically, shows Turner’s debt to Dutch examples in particular.

Both painters, in their late work, violently diverged from their familiar style. From the dark, mournful swirls of Rainstorm Over the Sea in the mid-1820s, Constable began a turn (that seems Turner-like to someone who has just seen the raging sea scenes at Tate Britain) towards such strange, late canvases as Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831), in which the rural and ecclesiastical site seems under a deadly menace (in the huge bruises of storm clouds above the spire) and, from an incongruous rainbow, a hint of Blake-like derangement that continues in the sinister mysticism of a watercolour of Stonehenge (1836), in which the scattered pieces resemble smashed teeth or broken bones. The only biscuit tins you can imagine these Constables illustrating would be in the backpacks of special operatives behind enemy lines.

Blake, the two men’s slight artistic English senior, also seems to have penetrated the later dreams of Turner in a sequence of improbably apocalyptic works including The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846), in which a savage splatter of his signature orange colour (used to create the many sunsets and fires in his early work) forms an exploding sun, above which hovers a pained-looking angel, illustrating a verse from Revelation.

If existence looks to be coming to an end in that picture, a more pleasurable climax seems to inform a contemporaneous painting, with the oranges and yellows orgasmically obliterated by a bleached cloud, into which a woman leans to bestow a kiss. Yet, even here, the pleasure is deadly: Undine Giving the Ring to Massaniello dramatises the story of a fisherman who is killed as a consequence of one ecstatic embrace.

In these departures, both artists were widely considered to have taken leave of their senses. The critic Ruskin described Turner’s 1846 images as “indicative of mental disease”, while contemporary accounts suggest that admirers of The Hay Wain considered the Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge pictures as, in Woody Allen terms, Interiors after Annie Hall.

It seems a reasonable biographical reading that, in their later work, Turner had woken up to sex (beginning, in his fifties, a relationship with the widow Mrs Booth), while Constable was opening his eyes to death. Constable’s wife, Maria, died in 1828 and he had lost his friend and patron Bishop John Fisher three years earlier. The V&A display also contains a copy of Jacob van Ruisdael’s blackly melancholic Winter Landscape, made midway between the deaths of his loved ones and his own death.

In his catalogue for the Constable exhibition, the curator Mark Evans reports one example of an actual conversation between the artists. After meeting Turner at a Royal Academy dinner in 1813, Constable wrote to his fiancée: “I was a good deal entertained with Turner. I always expected to find him what I did – he is uncouth but has a wonderful range of mind.” Visitors to London this autumn will find range and entertainment in a pair of shows ideally seen together. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage