Evoking the Sublime – Constable: The Dark Side

Constable, The Dark Side, an exhibition featuring over thirty artworks by 19th-century master John Constable, opens tomorrow in The Gallery at The Arc, Winchester. From skilful cloud studies to iconic complete works, this show comprehensively covers the practice of one of the most distinguished landscape artists to ever live, while cleverly interweaving the story of his turbulent life. For Constable, Chiaroscuro - the study of light and shadow - was more than just a technique. It defined life.

Ahead of the imminent launch of this unique exhibition, we want to take the opportunity to give you behind-the-scenes access to its development, from conception to installation. Four years in the making, the exhibition team and specialist curator Nicola Moorby have worked tirelessly to bring this exhibition together.

The beginning

Over four years ago, discussions around a Constable show began. Knowing the importance of Constable to landscape art, and popular imaginings of the countryside, it felt right to bring the artist to Winchester – a city he once greatly complimented. But how?

A different Constable

Works such as The Hay Wain have long informed perceptions of Constable as a practitioner of nostalgia and comfort, but we wanted to look beyond this. We wanted to take a more nuanced approach and to do that required a curator with expertise and guile in abundance.

In 2017, Nicola Moorby curated the exhibition Turner and the Sun for The Gallery. Nicola laid bare Turner's obsession, really getting to the heart of Turner's synergy with Sunlight. Therefore, it only felt natural that Nicola, who specialises in 19thCentury art, would be our first choice for Curator.

Nicola’s first proposal really captured our attention – an exhibition that would challenge our assumptions and see both the artist and his artworks in a new way. Visits to the V&A, where the team saw the breadth of Constable's practice, fuelled the development of an exhibition centred on the artists intertwining emotions and processes. Constable: The Dark Side was born.

Creating the show

Constable created hundreds of artworks. Exhaustive preparatory work went into every final work, leading to hundreds of sketches in oil, graphite and watercolour. It is through this richness of Constable’s productivity that curator Moorby poured, discovering key examples of light and dark in Constable’s life and artwork.

The first year of the project was spent researching what to include. The curator’s detail-driven processes led to selections that formed the basis of an exhibition in which all parts correspond to an effective line of inquiry. The inclusion of objects such as Constable’s death mask were even an option, but this felt too morbid. The narrative through-lines of the show, accentuated with the words of Constable himself, prove that there is no dark without light.

We had our objects and we had our interpretation – now it was time to bring it all together.

Curator Nicola Morby shortlisting works at the V&A

An epic installation

This is the moment that the exhibition team most anticipated –  the installation of an exhibition of seismic proportions. Opening every crate reveals a new aspect of Constable’s world; surging storms, towering trees and intense and dramatic artworks slowly emerge. Thirty works charged with enormous art history significance pass through the hands of our technicians. The presence of a master manifesting through his works fills the room, with skill and emotion exuding from every piece. For an artist considered placid and ‘chocolate box’, these works have an uncanny ability to awe and astound, producing an effect reminiscent of the romantic sublime – a movement Constable has often been excluded from.

Featuring labours of love, toils of torture, swift sketches and expressive explorations, this new exhibition represents a renowned but often misunderstood artist. We, the exhibition team, invite you to rediscover John Constable at The Arc, Winchester.

The exhibition team painted The Gallery entirely dark (Paean Black) in preparation for Constable: The Dark Side, with the kind support of our friends at Farrow and Ball.

Details from The Valley Farm, the largest work in the exhibition, peaking through the packaging. This piece brought about gasps of delight from the exhibition team as it arrived.

Constable: The Dark Side is organised by the Hampshire Cultural Trust. The exhibition runs 26 May - 16 August. The exhibition is accompanied by exciting events and activities, including a talk and tour by Curator Nicola Moorby.

For more information on these events, the exhibition, or to book your ticket, click here.

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