Oxford resident Dr Steven Parissien is director of the glorious Compton Verney. Opening its latest exhibition Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature, he said: “The landscape oil sketch first appeared in British art in the 1770s, flourished during the first two decades of the 19th century pioneered by JMW Turner and John Constable and then effectively disappeared…”

This exhibition captures this unique period in British art when the artists not only sketched directly from nature but tried to finish their paintings en plein air — a difficult exercise.

The phenomenon of painting British landscape from nature was driven by war. The possibility of going on a Grand Tour, sketching particularly in Italy, was interrupted by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Artists such as Turner turned from Imperial Rome to the growing metropolis of London and from trips up the Tiber to taking a boat up the Thames. It’s worth going to this exhibition just to see the three large oil on canvass paintings of the Thames by Turner. The first is of a View from Richmond Hill and Bridge, The second is Hampton Court from The Thames and the third is titled Barge on the River (1806/7) (location unknown) where the scenery has a remarkable resemblance to the Goring/Streatley area. The blaze of fire and subtle effects create a landscape which anticipates Turner’s later freer impressionistic paintings. There are some unusual Constables too, a lovely cloud study, The Sea near Brighton and The Grove, Hampstead. The exhibition is well hung enabling us to compare these two giants of British art and the lead-in pictures reveal some less well known talents. William Henry Brooke’s Lanherne Bay near Nunnery, Cornwall and Cornelius Varley’s Evening at Llanberis, North Wales would not be out of place in a contemporary exhibition. Compton Verney successfully combines the traditional and the contemporary and in this case the contemporary response of six artists using different media is on display. I particularly enjoyed Julian Opie’s computer-animated landscape Summer 2012 and Hilary Jack’s installation The Empty Nest. Families will love the latter. You can get a bird’s-eye view of Compton Verney’s 18th-century landscape from inside the giant nest up a cedar tree.

Constable and Turner may be seen as traditional in 2013 but, in their time, they were cutting edge. In the late 18th and early 19th century, when these British artists were recreating a tranquil rural atmosphere, across the channel in France the fashion had, in contrast, moved from Claude to the neo classical heroic art of Jacques Louis David.

This thought-provoking exhibition arose from a conversation between Michael Rosenthal of the University of Warwick and Anne Lyles, formerly of the Tate, and a leading authority on John Constable. This is her first major exhibition since going freelance and the works in this exhibition are on loan from Tate Britain. Michael and Anne rightly felt this period was ripe for investigation.

At the press day, Michael Rosenthal challenged young art historians to explore what happened during and just after this period. From being celebrated, Turner became vilified and this kind of landscape art declined in favour of high Victorian subject art. Exploring the hows and whys could be a fascinating exercise for anyone interested in history. This exhibition gives a glimpse of rural England before the spread of land enclosures turned the countryside between Oxford and Warwick into a scene of riot and revolution.

I left feeling that the period reflected in this show on the cusp of such revolutionary change is also right for our times — possibly edging towards momentous change?

These exhibitions end on September 22 but that leaves plenty of time for a day out to Compton Verney. The admission charge gives entry to the permanent exhibitions, this exhibition and the beautiful grounds.


Until September 22
Compton Verney, south Warwickshire
For information call 01926 645500                          or visit www.comptonverney.org.uk