Constable and Salisbury: The Soul of Landscape, Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, Salisbury

Salisbury, the city where Constable spent his honeymoon and returned after his wife's death, is welcoming his paintings back

On 23 November 1828, Maria Constable drew her last, bloody breath, worn away bytuberculosis and the birth of seven children. For her husband, John Constable, the sky grew dark.

His best friend, the Rev John Fisher, sent a letter to him from Weymouth: "I write with the hope of giving you comfort, but really I know not how." There was no consoling Constable, who, according to his biographer, "became a prey to melancholy" and wore black for the rest of his life.

Mention Constable country and we think of Suffolk, the place where John courted the young Maria. There was another Constable country, though, to which the painter had been introduced in 1811 by John Fisher via his uncle, also John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury. In 1816, Constable went back to the city, this time on his honeymoon. There were to be three more happy visits, in 1820, 1821 and 1823; and two desperately unhappy ones in 1829, in the months after Maria's death. In sorrow as in joy, Constable turned to Salisbury, to its cathedral and cathedral close, home to the two John Fishers.

The support they gave him was more than emotional. Thanks to The Hay Wain, we think of Constable as the English painter, a national treasure. That is a later truth: Constable sold only 20 paintings in England in his lifetime, locals finding his palette-knife impasto too daring. It was the French who took him to their breast, Delacroix gasping at the anti-classical colourism of The Hay Wain at the Paris Salon of 1824, the Impressionists modelling their brushwork on it. Of the paintings he sold at home, many were connected with the two John Fishers.

So a show of Constable's Salisbury works brought together in The Close has several things going for it. The most obvious – and heart-stopping – is that you can look at the paintings of this great cathedral and then, through the window, at the thing itself. There is something of the sublime in the building, the way it seems to soar and to weigh down on you; and Constable, ever Romantic, saw it. Among the various dualities of Salisbury for him – joy and pain, the built and the natural – is the cathedral itself, its beauty and potential horror.

In 1823, he paints it for Bishop Fisher – Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds, a strange work, the church rendered flat and thin behind a repoussoir screen of trees and cows. (Bishop Fisher, disliking the clouds of this one, had an infuriated Constable re-do it.) In 1829-30, with Maria and the bishop dead, there is Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – an entirely different thing, the church now incidental to the picture's composition, Constable's roiling paint picking up on clouds and horses, white flecks of light. In terms of balance, it is a close-run thing: God or Nature, order or disorder, faith or its lack.

By 1831, something has changed again. Constable paints a second Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, a vast canvas, 5ft by 6ft. In this new scale, the tightness that held the earlier work together is lost, and with it traditional colour harmonies. The later Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is something between a bruise and a wound, plum-coloured, open, raw. It is a picture of a church and a portrait of pain. You may never get the chance to see it in Salisbury again, so do.

The Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum, King's House, 65 The Close (01722 332151), to 25 September.

Next Week:

Charles Darwent dips a toe into the Venice Biennale

Art Choice

Another new David Chipperfield gallery, this one in Yorkshire, is now open; visit The Hepworth Wakefield for major displays of the local sculptor Barbara Hepworth's works alongside changing exhibitions – the first is by sculptor Eva Rothschild (to 9 Oct). At London's Hayward, Tracey Emin gets a major retrospective in Love Is What You Want, until 29 Aug.

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