ARTS EXHIBITIONS: Constable's wallpaper period

If the National Gallery's new show is anything to go by, John Constable's 'Cornfield' is hanging, in some form or other, on every wall in the country
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A TOUCHING little exhibition at the National Gallery calls our attention to John Constable's Cornfield, or rather to its place in people's hearts. The show looks at the painting as a personal and domestic rather than as a national icon. There's no enquiry about the work itself, nothing to explain its iconography, no exhibits in the way of sketches or preparatory material. Instead, we have a display of the picture in reproduction, or as copied by other artists, or as it appears on plates, trays, a cushion, a fireguard or even a thimble.

The idea for the show belongs to Colin Painter, principal of the Wimbledon School of Art. He set about his Cornfield project by printing a reproduction in two South London free newspapers, with the question "Do you have this picture in your home, or something with this picture on it such as a clock?" This advert did not name the picture. Painter received 45 replies. Next, he put up a notice beside the picture itself in the National Gallery. This time 509 people responded. Some were interviewed, informally, and then Painter's wife Anne took photographs of them with their own particular token of the celebrated picture.

It might seem that Painter has been working on a sociological analysis, but I doubt it. Surely he made a special application to the artist Frank Auerbach and the art historian Ian Fleming-Williams. Auerbach is well known for the charcoal drawings he makes from pictures in the National Gallery. Fleming-Williams is a noted Constable scholar, and was partly responsible for the Tate's huge retrospective of the artist in 1991. I don't object to their appearance in the present show, and appreciate Auerbach's comments on the Cornfield. No one can pretend, however, that he is representative of public opinion.

Visually, the show looks awful. Special exhibitions at the National Gallery usually have over-large explanatory placards. Here, the tendency is rampant, since 15 owners of a Constable souvenir are given their say in a text at the side of their exhibit. There are plates, clocks and jigsaws all over the place. The original picture is in a corner of the gallery, not quite overcome by the plethora of its imitations. Inevitably, though, some of the character of Constable's painting is lost. And then there are the photographs. Everyone who contributes to the show has been photographed with their "Constable" in their own homes.

So this is also a show of camerawork, and Anne Painter becomes the first photographer to occupy a room in the National Gallery. She has managed well, obviously aware that she is taking part in a juggling act. For neither of the Painters could allow the slightest hint of condescension or criticism in their enterprise. Nor could they quite claim it as their own, it being so strikingly about other people. "At Home With Constable's Cornfield" is distantly related to conceptual-art projects of a dozen years ago, but this side of the Painters' work is kept to a minimum. And they could not address arguments about "elitism", though Colin Painter's text uneasily approaches the subject. The National Gallery is both elitist and enormously popular.

The photographs reflect such concerns. They are mostly of people unknown to the world at large portrayed within their own homes. These homes are not of the sort that attract features in, say, Homes and Gardens.

In general they look lower-middle-class. Painter does not insist on social analysis, though we see that she has been affected by such people as Martin Parr and Chris Steele-Perkins. The photography of such mentors may look slightly dated these days, but datedness doesn't matter in Anne Painter's work. It might even help. She also hints at the unposed atmosphere of the family snap; and such prints, as we all know, have a curiously recent- ancient feeling.

Family, especially old-fashioned family, is important in these photographs. Young people, who I guess may not care tuppence for the Cornfield, make no appearance in the survey. It is indeed concerned with people who remember the value of tuppence. Don Hazelgrove, for instance, who is an unemployed engineer and plays the accordion outside a charity shop in Chiswick. Or Jim Nippress, a retired general handyman. He lives in a flat on the 14th floor of a tower block near Heathrow. The only person who looks unaffectedly happy and contemporary in these photographs is Theresa Scoble. She has embroidered the Cornfield as a cushion cover, between takes of EastEnders. Being an actress, she has a knack of looking at the camera that other people don't possess.

Lots of family, and laments for an older, better England are the recurrent themes when exhibitors are asked for their thoughts. Is that because of the way we live today, or do lovers of Constable instinctively respond to a theme in the painting itself? There's a theory (which Fleming-Williams dismisses) that it represents the three ages of man. In the front is the boy, representing youth. In the middle ground is the cord ready for harvest, signifying maturity. In the distance is the church, and you know what that means. Grizzled heads, owl-season and darkness. Comments on this interpretation should be sent not to me but to the Painters.

! 'At Home With Constable's Cornfield': National, WC2 (0171 839 3321), to 21 Apr.