‘I have done a good deal of skying’, John Constable

It sounds like the perfect activity for a summer’s day: sprawled on the grass, gazing lazily skywards, watching clouds drift slowly across the sky. Skying: Looking at Clouds is in fact the name given to a small, intimate display, hidden amongst the vast span of rooms dedicated to Turner at Tate Britain, last year. Curated by Julia Beaumont-Jones and Christine Kurpiel this small interlude, sandwiched between masterpieces, is both romantic and captivating. Featuring six artists including Turner, Alexander Cozens, John Constable and David Cox, the display captures what Tate does best. Focusing in on the minutia of subjects, many of the works looked like half-finished sketches, inky skies scratched across the clean white paper, mimicking the behaviour of clouds scudding across the sky.

There is something about the unfinished nature of the work that lends itself to intimacy. A number of the works, The Storm Clouds, Turner, c. 1820-30 included, are painted in watercolour. As a medium it possesses an innate duality, encompassing light and shade, transparency and opacity. Watercolour floats, bleeding and overlapping, creating tributaries and pathways across the paper. From fragile beginnings it rushes forwards, merging into a watery ‘other’ world. Compared to the opaque solidity of oil, stone or marble it lacks the formal gravitas demanded by other mediums. Yet this is perhaps what gives the work its intimacy, capturing an informality that allows you to slip between the pages, caught between past and future. Locked by walls and corridors the sky should feel a far-off memory, but instead Skying lifts the lid, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the sublime, grounded between reality and imagination.

See Skying, Tate Britain for further information.

© Tate Images

Post author Gemma Brace