Exhibition review: English landscape sketches

On the last leg of its 11-month tour, this breezily enchanting show comes from Compton Verney and Margate to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, where it will remain from March 1 until June 29. The misleading full title, ‘Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature, Works from the Tate Collection’, conveys both less and more than it actually contains. Less, because, of the 59 works from about 1770 to 1830 on display, only nine are by Constable and eight by Turner; more, because the others, including five each by Thomas Jones and George Robert Lewis, are well worth
a little trumpet-blowing.

It is strange that there is no fully acceptable English term for plein air painting. The direct translation, ‘open-air’ painting, is awkward, as would be ‘outdoor’. Yet, from the mid 18th century, British artists took to the practice of sketching directly from nature in oil paint or water-colour with great enthusiasm. They learned from Continental colleagues in Rome, who had been inspired in their turn by the practice of earlier French masters, notably Claude and Alexandre-François Desportes.

The greatest enthusiasts among the Grand Tour artists in Rome were the French landscapist Claude-Joseph Vernet and the Germans Georg and Jacob Philipp Hackert. Of the latter-not mentioned in the catalogue essays for this show-Goethe wrote that, in 1770: ‘The French pensionnaires were all amazed when they saw the two Hackerts roaming the countryside with large portfolios, executing finished outline drawings in pen and ink or, indeed, highly finished water-colours, and even paintings, entirely from nature.’

Alexander Cozens and, later, his son John Robert, Richard Wilson and his pupil Thomas Jones, George Stubbs and many more were directly influenced by Vernet and Hackert and, on their return, their experience added power and ambition to the existing native strand of topographical, antiquarian and picturesque view taking in watercolour.

Recommended videos for you

As the originators and curators of the show point out, plein air painting was physically difficult, even though special boxes, doubling as supports, were developed for it. For the most part, the products were small-scale sketches and, as speed of execution was often of the essence, style and technique in oil may be closer to watercolour sketches than to the finished exhibition pictures that might be based on them.

The show opens with a figureless Stubbs of a rubbing-down house at Newmarket, which is so immediate that one can smell the clay and chalk. Then, Jones astonishes, as ever, Constable is supremely assured and Turner points towards the future. An admirable aspect is that, despite the title, the two last do not tower over their contemporaries. Artists who are not now regarded as their equals, but were then, such as George Garrard, William Alfred Delamotte, Peter De Wint and William Henry Hunt-not to mention John Crome and John Sell Cotman-show just how strong they could be in this form.

There are, too, some lesser-known names, such as John Burnet, well worth the finding. Given an end date of about 1830, it is a pity that one or two of Landseer’s early oil sketches have not been included.

‘Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature, Works from the Tate Collection’ is at the Laing Art Gallery, New Bridge Street, Newcastle, from March 1 until June 29 (0191-232 7734; www.