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.

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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. 

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