Every family has their Christmas ritual. For my own, it has always been a brief and bracing walk on Hampstead Heath. And, as that tradition comes around for its annual fulfilment, it seems appropriate to give a brief appreciation to the Heath’s role in the development of European art. For one man of genius in particular, that swathe of verdant Middlesex countryside separating Hampstead from London was an invaluable source of inspiration. He is, of course, John Constable. Altogether, his works represent a good proportion of England’s contribution to Romanticism, the movement which swept aside the great era of Classicism and dominated art until the rise of Modernism in the mid-twentieth century. He lived in Hampstead and walked its meandering paths in the same single-minded and bodiless way Wordsworth traversed miles of his native Cumbria. The nature which he found embodied in the Heath, was the unadulterated nature the Romantics sought to worship. As Keats, also a resident in Hampstead, said: “What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth”.
When Constable first arrived a pupil of the Royal Academy in 1799, the hierarchy of art had been fixed solid for centuries. In many senses, it served to mirror the ladder-like rigidity of the feudal system by which society had been organised. At the very top were images from the illustrious moments of history, beneath that came portraiture, lower still, scenes of common-place life. But, lowest of all, was landscape and still-life. For, according to the argument of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Academy, it required no imagination or ingenuity at all from its creator. From such an establishment, John Constable was an unlikely rebel. Born into a relatively wealthy family of millers and farm owners in Suffolk, he came from that class of small-time gentry and parish squires who had always been the backbone of Toryism. Yet, although his instincts were undoubtedly conservative, his love for the land itself was too deeply rooted. He wrote that it was “slimy posts”, “rotten banks” and old “brickwork” which made him a painter. However, more than this, the very society around him was also changing. Industrial revolution saw the cities swell with slums, whilst the country emptied. Meanwhile, the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars caused a flood of returning soldiers and cheap European grain. In consequence, the stable world of Constable’s youth was now in chaos and flux; the order of society was shaking at its foundations. Thus, Constable’s rebellious naturalism was not in spite of his beliefs, but rather their expression: a conservative turned by change into a rustic reactionary. Constable came to hate ‘grandeur and pomposity’. His greatest works, such as The Hay Wain, were produced on vast six-foot canvases to match those of history painters like Davide and Ingers. In contrast to their towering figures, his heroes lurked unseen, permeating the whole canvas, instead of marking their outline in paint. In his mind, civilisation was not the preside of palaces or pretentious salons, but rather emanated from a cottage, a mill, or a willowed bank.
On the Heath he found a haven. He spent many long hours studying the sky and clouds with the meticulous obsession of a meteorologist. From this careful work came masterpieces such as Hampstead Heath, with the House Called ‘The Salt Box’ (c.1819-20). Beneath the vast sky which dominates the image, seeming to pull all the other colours towards its magnetic summer-blue, the sloping land lies in a contented sleep. In the foreground, afternoon shadows stretch out, plotting the tendrils of the trees, beyond whose shade a few scattered workmen wander, neither hurry nor heat troubling their bucolic melancholy. In their midst, a pool of water reclines temptingly, light flickering and winking, white on its blue surface. “One would wish, in looking at it, for a parasol”, comments his biographer and friend, C. R. Leslie. But perhaps the best summary can be provided by Constable’s own notes, when he wrote of a day on the Heath that the “clouds [are] silvery grey on warm ground, sultry”.
His personal feeling for this landscape as a subject was demonstrated by his repeated returns to it. Indeed, the Heath was one of his final compositions, Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow (1836: the year before his death). No longer are we presented with a scene of Summer bliss, but the orange-browns and faded dark greens of Autumn. Nonetheless, what remains is the sky. Now it is not just a smattering of fresh turquoise and soft white, but amongst this erupts a richness of purple and black, which itself births the supernatural colours of a rainbow. Yet, these colours are purposefully faint, demanding a half-squint of recognition, obliging the viewer to marvel for a moment longer on this brooding sight. In the centre, a mill stands beneath the glory above, its blades hinting at a crucifix. Without doubt, the emotions of life’s end imbue this picture with its energy, just as the confidence of celebration and innocence imbues the first. However, both find these truths far from the noble faces or ornate columns of ancient art. Instead, they are drawn from that raw, unhampered beauty of the Heath.
Constable found no great acclaim for his work in contemporary England. Although he became an Academician, it was in 1829, at the fairly late age of fifty-two and even then, he won the election by a single vote. But, in Paris his work was exhibited and adored. Delacroix famously exclaimed “incroyable!” upon seeing it; the Louvre attempted to purchase several pieces. Constable, a bluff old country Tory to the end, dismissed their praise in the xenophobic terms of the recent war. Nevertheless, it was for the French, to whom Classicism represented the slaughter and disaster of Revolution and defeat, that this Romantic rebellion truly appealed. William Makepeace Thackeray in his Paris Sketch Book, wrote in 1840 of the death of Classicism, imagining “scotch adventurers” and “valiant knights” giving battle and overcoming the “heroes and demi-gods of Greece and Rome”. Perhaps, he would have better described them fleeing from no more terrifying a sight than the rolling and gentle slope of Parliament Hill up to Hampstead in the mid-day Sun.