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"Constable: The Dark Side" at The Arc Gallery

This week, Mr Scrummie and I, in the company of our Litttlest - aged 2 - headed to The Arc (previously The Discovery Centre) in Winchester to see an exciting new exhibition, "Constable: The Dark Side".

John Constable is best known for his work as a landscape painter, so much so that he's become affectionately known as 'The Painter of Suffolk'; and even those that wouldn't consider themselves 'art lovers' would probably recognise "Wivenhoe Park" or "The Hay Wain" as being his handiwork, almost subconsciously, because we, as a society, seem to see those highly-textured, on-a-grand-scale oil paintings of day-to-day rural English countryside scenes and think: "THAT'S Constable".

So, when I saw that this exhibition was entitled, "Constable: The Dark Side"; I must admit, a part of me thought: "WHAT dark side?" What possible 'dark side' could there be to the man behind these famous chocolate box-y landscapes? But a darker side there definitely was.

‘I live by shadows, to me shadows are realities’, wrote Constable and, according to Nicola Moorby, the art historian and curator behind this exhibition, if he’d have had a motto, it would have been the phrase that appears in his print publication, English Landscape Scenery, "Ut umbra sic vita" - ‘Life is as a shadow’ because, Constable DID have a 'dark' side - albeit not the Darth Vaderesque 'dark side' you might be envisaging - a 'dark' side in that, he was a man victim to what he himself called "season[s] of Sadness"; it turns out, to this mum of two, a very relatable figure, much less grand than the Royal Academician the world thinks it knows; in reality, just a man, painting the places he knew and loved, using his work as means to distract himself from the darker elements of his life that he struggled against on a day-to-day basis.

John Constable was born in Suffolk in 1776; his father was a wealthy corn merchant; owner of Flatford Mill and, later, Dedham Mill (both of which Constable would go on to immortalise on canvas) and it was expected of John that he succeed his father in the family business but, from early on, it was clear that the young Constable had no desire to manage the mills and in 1799, he persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art: John Constable had an ambition to be a landscape painter and by 1803 he was exhibiting work at the Royal Academy.

In 1816, Constable married his childhood friend and long-term sweetheart, Maria Bicknell and it was during this time, and in the immediately following years, arguably at his happiest, enjoying domestic bliss, that he produced his most famous works; but Constable's commercial success and recognition within the industry was soon hampered by devasting personal loss.

Around 1824, Maria developed tuberculosis and her worsening symptoms prompted Constable to acquire lodgings for his family in Brighton, in the hope that the fresh sea air would restore his wife to health. But, it was to no avail; after the birth of their seventh child, the Constables returned to London, where, weakened by multiple pregnancies and her constant battle with consumption, Maria died, in the November of 1828, aged 41.

From then on, Constable lived in mourning. He took to wearing black and was described as being "a prey to melancholy"; and this immense grief seems to have seeped into every part of his being, including into his work: gone was the serenity of his earlier phase, as he made way for a much more emotional way of working; finding an outlet for his sense of pain, in his art.

And it was this side, this 'dark side' to Constable that I didn't expect from this exhibition. Hanging on the walls in front of me was Grief, the turmoil of bereavement alongside the struggle of parenting, of raising very young children; all whilst trying to forge a career for yourself. And THAT, I can relate to.

My mum prematurely passed away in 2019, and it shook my world. I'd just had my first child and my husband and I were planning our next. I've been through many things in my life, but never before had I experienced the mind-numbing, heart-wrenching agony of losing someone so immediately close to you, and it changed my life; I am a different person now, because of the loss of her. I also now know exactly what it's like to be negotiating that life-altering change whilst trying to be a parent.

And so, there I was, standing in a gallery in Winchester, looking at the turbulent, stormy seascapes and moody church scenes of a man who died over a hundred and eighty years ago, thinking "Yep, I get that; I know what THAT feels like" - and I think that's rather special: the humanity of Constable, the man behind that public persona, behind the hay wagons and mill streams: the bereaved husband, the struggling father, the man lurking in the deep, dark shadow that comes with all light, the 'dark side': call it 'chiaroscuro' if you like, but it's so much more than that: it's very real, it's very raw, it's very beautiful and it's eternally relatable.

CONSTABLE: THE DARK SIDE is at The Arc in Winchester from now until 16th August 2023. You can find out more about the exhibition here: CONSTABLE | The Arc Winchester – arts, reading and community

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