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“He has been here and fired a gun”: Turner, Constable and the Royal Academy – Review

12 January - 31 March 2019

FREE entry


The Royal Academy has finally seen the return of John Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge and J.M.W. Turner’s Helvoetsluys; - the City of Utrecht, 64, Going to Sea in a new display that parallels their Summer Exhibition of 1832.

It is believed that during that 1832, upon viewing Constable’s painting, Turner realised the threat it posed to his own work and impulsively added a dash of red to his own painting. This would eventually become the crucial red buoy in the serene landscape. This would provoke Constable to exclaim: "He has been here and fired a gun!"

J.M.W. Turner, Helvoetsluys (‘Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, going to sea’, 1832.

Photo Ⓒ Tokyo Fuji Art Museum/Bridgeman Images.

Turner’s painting (pictured above) has been lent to the Royal Academy by the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum and feels different from his archetypal work. It is softer somehow, still possessing Turner’s emblematic expanse of clouds, but with more delicacy. Constable’s painting, on the other hand, has been borrowed from the Tate Britain and not only is it extensive, at seven feet long, it also packs a very initial punch, forcefully darker and scattered with red.

Both of the paintings are unquestionably exquisite, walking the tightrope between tender and tumultuous, full of energy but also signifying serenity. What originally seems like two completely different pieces of work quickly become comparable and it is clear to see where the infamous rivalry between these painters came from.

John Constable,The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (‘Waterloo Bridge, from Whitehall Stairs, June 18th, 1817’), 1832. Photo: © Tate, London, 2018.

The decision to mount them opposite one another is incredibly apt; they are quite literally in a face off, as neither is able to draw attention from other. Complete focus is forced onto each individual painting. In the Royal Academy, you are able to stand in the space between them and turn, look, compare and then turn back again. Nobody could be the judge of which is the better work.

It’s a pithy display and well worth a visit; the perfect thing to spend some time looking at whilst visiting the Royal Academy this season.

The paintings are on display until 31st March 2019 and the Collection Gallery is free access to all.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford

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