LONDON (Reuters) - Thomas Gainsborough, J.M.W. Turner and John Constable are among Britain’s most revered artists, admired for their ability to capture a native landscape long dismissed by the establishment as a subject unworthy of great painters.
A new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, unusually drawn entirely from its own collection, traces how the three artists helped pave the way for greater acceptance of a genre now considered one of Britain’s greatest artistic achievements.
Entitled “Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape”, the show runs from December 8 to February 17, 2013, and concentrates on the century between 1750 and 1850.
Among the works on display will be Gainsborough’s “Romantic Landscape”, Constable’s two great landscapes of the 1820s - “The Leaping Horse” and “Boat Passing a Lock” and Turner’s “Dolbadern Castle”.
Alongside the headline artists will be paintings by some of their 18th century contemporaries, including Richard Wilson, Michael Angelo Rooker and Paul Sandby, and a series of prints which played a major role in the genre’s ascent.
“The main thrust (of the exhibition) is this transformation in landscape painting between 1750 and 1850 that is communicated through (Royal Academy) exhibition paintings by Gainsborough, Turner, Constable and Wilson,” said curator MaryAnne Stevens.
“But also very importantly, it was communicated to a wider audience through the print and also the watercolour. These were more accessible and far more widely available than a painting on the walls of the Royal Academy,” she told Reuters.
Earlier this year, David Hockney displayed his landscapes of Yorkshire, northern England, in the Royal Academy’s main gallery space in a hugely popular show, and art experts trace his works back to the 18th and 19th century greats.
Underlining the lasting popularity of Britain’s earlier landscape painters, a version of Constable’s Lock canvas fetched 22.4 million pounds in July, one of the highest prices ever paid for a British “old master” painting at auction.
Stevens argued that a broader interest in the British landscape was already underway during this period through guide books and popular tours of picturesque regions, such as Thomas West’s guide to the Lake District in northwest England.
The French Revolution further fuelled that interest by denying many wealthy Britons the opportunity to travel freely across the Continent and embark on the Grand Tour.
“The important thing about the French Revolution is that England was effectively at war (for much of the period) from 1789 to 1815,” Stevens explained.
“It was out of bounds and there was a need to go and experience nature and travel, so the British landscape became the subject of those journeys.”
According to Ian Warrell, a Turner expert who has written an introduction to the show in the Academy’s in-house magazine, Gainsborough demonstrated landscape painting’s potential for emotion and imagination beyond merely recording a scene.
Turner seized on this trend as he travelled not only to Rome, Venice and Paris but also across Britain, making watercolours from pencil sketches and recognising the importance of print reproductions to reach a wider audience.
Constable, in contrast, aimed for a less artificial style than his great rival Turner, closely observing nature but adopting what Warrell called “an increasingly expressive application of the paint”.
“In fact it is Constable, rather than Turner, who should be lauded as the ‘first Impressionist’,” Warrell wrote.
For the Royal Academy, the show is a rare opportunity to delve into its store of around 1,000 paintings, hundreds of sculptures and tens of thousands of works on paper.
The main galleries are normally reserved for exhibitions of art loaned from around the world, and the landscape show, staged in smaller rooms, is the first of its kind for over 20 years.
“It’s important because the Academy has a very important collection, but we don’t have much space to show it on our walls because of the main exhibition programme,” said Stevens.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White