The most spectacular artistic rivalry in British history will be revived this month when blockbuster exhibitions by two of the nation’s most renowned painters pitch them into direct competition, just as they were in their lifetimes two centuries ago. The simultaneous shows unavoidably provoke the question asked ever since the artists were showing side by side in the Romantic age: who is the greatest British painter ever?
Is it Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose glowing, occasionally abstract, visions of sea and sky and the violent elements are celebrated at Tate Britain from 10 September? Or is it his contemporary John Constable, whose acute observations of the clouds, trees and changing light of his native Suffolk are examined at the V&A 10 days later?
Pedigree – Constable was the son of a well-to-do middle-class mill owner and Suffolk corn merchant, while Turner was a self-made success, born above a Covent Garden barber’s shop. And while Constable was well-dressed and renowned for his good looks, Turner was famously ugly, labelled “uncouth” by his contemporaries.
Love life – Constable was a respectable married man, while the promiscuous Turner was a outspoken critic of wedlock. “I hate all married men,” he was once reported to have said, apparently a dig at Constable.
Rivalry – While Constable publicly praised his rival, in private he criticised his work as being “just steam and light”. It didn’t seem to do much to dent Turner’s confidence. “I am the great lion of the day,” he proclaimed.
Admirers – Ruskin said Turner while being a “hating humbug of all sorts” was “the painter and poet of the day”. But Lucian Freud insisted Constable was the greater painter. “You can admire Turner enormously, but never be moved by him really,” he said. “For me, Constable is so much more moving than Turner because you feel, for him, it’s truth-telling.” Edited from Turner and Constable exhibitions revive Britain’s greatest art rivalry