The time when Turner trumped Constable

Two paintings by titans of the British art world have been reunited in London after 187 years.

John Constable’s ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ and JMW Turner’s ‘Helvoetsluys’ were last seen together at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1832. The display sparked a bitter spat between the RA School’s most famous graduates that is the stuff of legend. It was even captured in the Oscar-nominated biopic ‘Mr Turner’ by Mike Leigh starring Timothy Spall in the title role.

The story goes that when Turner saw Constable’s seven-foot long painting, which had been 15 years in the making, the former was rattled by how his work paled in comparison to his rival’s epic piece. Constable’s sumptuously coloured evocation of the pomp that accompanied the bridge’s opening dominated the space. The undulating waves and tall ships of Turner’s sobering seascape hung next to it were dwarfed.

In a moment of inspiration, Turner walked over to his own canvas and daubed it with red paint to create a small red buoy bobbing in the waves. He left the room wordlessly. Constable was incensed. According to a fellow academician, Charles Robert Leslie, who said he was in the room when these events unfolded, Constable remarked: “He has been here and fired a gun”. As RA Curator Per Rumberg explains, the tale engendered the image of Turner “as an impulsive genius”.

‘Helvoetsluys’ now belongs in the collection of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum and ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’ is in Tate Britain. In an ode to this famous event and the legendary rivalry between the two artists both works will be hung next to each other at the Royal Academy from Saturday 12 January 2019 until 31 March 2019.



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