Thoughts on attending an exhibition of John Constable's painting at the National Gallery in Washington

One knows only too well that landscape paintings hide
Unseen miseries, unhappiness and early death.
Yet here's Old England, on the cusp of change,
Captured immortally by the painter's brush,
The rustic face of that more vigorous age.
Ah, if one could just step back in time!

The sound of water escaping from mill-dams,
The willows, old rotten planks, the slimy posts and brickwork;
I love such things. *
The grey-brown River Stour, drifting lazily across the fields;
The mauves, the purple-greys of towering Anglian skies,
The clouds changing, fleeting and ephemeral,
Next to which the landscape is a flat, low plain.
The carters and the harnessed horses;
The deep dark grey-green elms and chestnut trees,
Touches of sunlight filtering through the foliage;
The lock, the barking dog, the working water mill;
Reflections in the still, untroubled waters;
The fisherman, maybe casting for a trout,
In the clear current, where fish could still be clearly seen.

In Sussex, too, impressions of this vanished age:
Threatening rain clouds and roughening, Channel seas;
Simple vessels drawn up on the shore, with drying sails;
Fishing boats anchored, captured in sepia and set in mist.
All this in contrast to the high society, the lords and retinues
That promenaded on the front, more concerned with being seen
Than breathing fresh sea air and gazing at the waves.

But think a little harder and the viewer can discern
Impressions of new economies and changing times.
Constable faithfully painted them, and maybe mourned,
As he witnessed the passing of an age.
Among his images of age-old country scenes
Are hints of industry and new technology,
The still new canal beside the horse and cart,
The barge beside the "modern" mill.
No, the famous haywain hadn't long to last,
Overtaken by the tractor and the drawn low-loader.
Four generations on, the leaping horseman will have gone,
And with him will have disappeared the horse,
Except as recreation for the adolescent girl.
The fisherman will be there, but arrive by car.
Even the lock, the barge and loading dock,
Big advances at that point in time,
Have fifty years of life before the train
Renders them redundant, rotting and forgotten.
The villagers of Dedham will commute
To city jobs with banks and brokers;
Willy Lott's cottage may become a weekend home,
Or maybe a museum, selling prints and Chinese manufactured souvenirs.
The Stour will become less a highway, more a drain,
Carrying run-off and fertilizer to the polluted sea.
Coachloads of foreign tourists will debauch
Upon the tarmacked parking lots.
Shutters will open (but will minds?),
Capturing scenes degraded by time and endless feet.
Only the dog will still be there, bounding along the river bank,
Still in the picture, even if the picture's changed.

As for the Brighton seafront, maybe lesser known,
The fish have gone, and with them have the boats,
The nets, the ropes, anchors, knots,
The exquisite ladies strolling on the front,
The beaux and carriages and violet sellers,
Replaced by harassed mothers pushing walkers
And older women toting Marks and Spencer's shopping.

Maybe we are better off for all this change.
All the same, if one could just step back in time!

February 2007

* A quotation from Constable himself.