Address at Event on 19th September 2010 to mark

the bicentenary of John Constable RA’s painting for Nayland Church

This text is a very slightly edited version of a short talk given in Nayland Church to mark the return of the painting after restoration.

Thank you all for inviting us to be here tonight. We do in fact, come back to the Stour valley quite often, though we are, as Ronald has just reminded us that Constable was, very definitely river people, and we rarely stop in the villages, staying close to the river on foot or afloat, fishing as we go. So it is splendid to have a reason to see that these are also inhabited regions, and be with you tonight to mark this unique occasion with words and music.

It is particularly enjoyable for me because it is an opportunity to hear Ronald speak on the subject of this painting and my ancestor. It is an easy matter for a writer or a thinker to be striking, it is very much harder to be sincerely so, but Ronald makes this seem like a matter of course.

Indeed, sincerity is a curious quality, not simply a question of saying what you mean and meaning what you say, but finding something that you genuinely wish to mean and then saying it.

There is no bigger problem for a writer, or, I suppose, for an artist, and the available resolutions are not always true friends.

Somewhere in his early writings, in Daybreak I think, Nietzsche remarks that weaker personalities in the arts are drawn to greater subjects, because they need their support. Whereas, a greater mind, by which I take it he indicates one in confident possession of its knowledge, can afford, as he puts it, “to intercede on behalf of simple things”.

We may think of Chardin, or of Vuillard, but it seems to be quintessentially true of Constable, who preferred to paint the earth-born humble beauties of his home fields and water meadows, rather than those of re-manufactured history or Alpine tourism.

The strength required for such a preference is easily appreciated even today in any gallery where his paintings hang beside those of other great European masters.

And it is a contrast that goes on growing.

The humility of this approach is as distant as can be imagined from the theatrical transgression of moral boundaries or the aggressive rejection of simple personal and social pleasures that has characterized so much painting in the last hundred years.

For some, it seems, the world just isn’t good enough.

But whether any of us will or can ever know enough about ourselves, or the world, to be sure that the tree turning its leaves silver side up to the wind, the “ragged scoop and burst”[1] of a rain storm, the passing sparkle on the river glimpsed through trees, the everyday hedges, the dripping bankside plants, are not up to our demanding scratch.

However, I cannot say that the painting behind me is a humble subject. Indeed for a Christian there are few more significant. Nor is it entirely typical of Constable.

More familiar are those pictures of scenes still more familiar to you, the paintings of the river valley in which we now stand.

But there is a direct route from one to the other. Constable famously looked at the Elder flowers in the vale, and saw “the resurrection and the life”.

We, in our turn, can look at this depiction of Christ blessing the bread and wine and think of a world made up of simple and beautiful things that are by any measure a blessing.

[1] Identified as “John Constable’s beauty” by Wyndham Lewis, “Inferior Religions” (1914, published 1917)