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Clark: Constable - Impressions of Land, Sea, & Sky

Tuesday 4 July 2006

Rt Hon Helen Clark
Prime Minister

Address at
Opening of Exhibition
Constable: Impressions of Land, Sea, and Sky

Te Papa

6.30 pm

Tuesday 4 July 2005

I am delighted to be here tonight, at the opening of this very significant exhibition, the first major exhibition of John Constable’s works in New Zealand and Australia for more than thirty years.

One of Constable's most famous works, the 1821 painting The Hay Wain, has been judged in an online survey in the UK to be an English icon, alongside cricket, Big Ben, the double-decker bus, and a cup of tea. It says much for the greatness of Constable that his work of close to two centuries ago has an enduring place in popular culture and consciousness.

While the Hay Wain is not in this exhibition, it is on display in an exhibition at The Tate.

A review of that exhibition published in the UK just last week made the point that while some critics sneer at Constable's work with comments about chocolate box art, all that tells us is that the critics don't like chocolate!

The reviewer went on to suggest, somewhat tongue in cheek, that soon Constable's work will be all that is left of rural Suffolk and its Essex border.

One does not have to be a learned art critic to appreciate the glory of Constable’s work. You really would need a heart of stone not to be touched by the sheer beauty of these magnificent works.

Most of us have seen reproductions of Constable’s works, or had the opportunity to see originals on visits to offshore galleries, but few of us will have seen an exhibition of his works on this scale.

Constable painted his life and times: rural England and its activities, its southern coastline, its churches and great houses, and its weather. I relate to his work as someone of English descent. All of his painting was done before my forebears left for New Zealand in the mid nineteenth century.

These paintings tell me about the land they left, and about what a contrast its tamed landscapes were with the forested land to which they came.

I have always loved his remarkable painting of Salisbury Cathedral from across the meadow. Even today in crowded, industrialised England, that great spire still dominates a semi rural space much as it did 183 years ago when Constable was inspired to paint it.

I am also taken by his portrayal of Old Sarum, familiar to secondary school history students of the 1960s as the location of a rotten borough before electoral reform. Constable saw in it the proud monument it was, with its history of human occupation and conquest stretching from its role as an Iron Age hill fort, to a fortification for Romans, Saxons, and Normans, before being abandoned for New Sarum, or modern day Salisbury as we know it.

England’s wintry weather is legendary, and made more so by the paintings of Constable and Turner. Constable has the remarkable ability through colour and texture to convey wind, rain, and sleet, as well as the lighter summer moments of sun on rural fields and the glory of his clouds.

Constable studied the weather very carefully, making copious notes on his sketches before committing brush to paint. His fascination with the climate makes sponsorship by our Meteorological Service very appropriate – and indeed unique. The Met Service says this is the first time it has ever sponsored anything outside the world of commercial meteorology. To coin a phrase – I’m glad they’ve seen the light !

Clearly an exhibition of this kind is of inestimable value – and can only proceed with government support. Both the New Zealand and Australian Governments have indemnification schemes which make it possible for works like these to come to our countries, because we believe in our people having the opportunity to experience the great art of other nations.

Of course we have our own rich and vibrant art, but it has not developed in isolation, nor should it be experienced in isolation. We need to be able to explore and understand the unique culture we are developing here in its context, and recognise its antecedents.

This exhibition has also been made possible by those who have agreed to lend the works, and those who have sponsored and facilitated it.

I want to thank especially the National Gallery of Australia. Originally this exhibition was intended to be seen only in Australia. It is the strong partnership and relationship which exists between the National Gallery of Australia, and Te Papa, which has made it possible for the works to come here. This is deeply appreciated by me and the New Zealand Government.

It is now my pleasure to declare John Constable: Impressions of Land, Sea and Sky, officially open.


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