Past Events

Rereading Constable: Letters, Life and Art

Call for Papers

  • 25 July to 31 August 2022

A Conference to be held at the Paul Mellon Centre on 2nd December 2022.

How do artists’ letters articulate professional and personal affiliations, embody networks and forge allegiances? What role has letter writing played in artistic self-fashioning? In what ways do letters serve as a form of art-historical evidence, and help us understand works of art themselves?

We are seeking contributions from those who work on the culture of the Romantic era – its literature, history and society – for a major conference exploring these questions through a focus on the extraordinarily rich correspondence of the landscape painter John Constable (1776–1837).

R.B. Beckett’s multi-volume edition of Constable’s correspondence, published in six volumes by the Suffolk Records Society (1962–68), has long been recognised as an invaluable source for scholars working on the artist, and for all those interested in British art and culture in the late Georgian period. The published correspondence shows the painter to have been a shrewd, skilled writer, versed in a variety of literary, scientific and biblical texts. His correspondents were, in turn, often highly articulate writers, including many family members, and many more with very different characters and backgrounds. Often utilised by art historians, the correspondence has more recently attracted the interest of scholars interested in the literary character and rhetorical conventions of nineteenth-century correspondence, who have subjected Constable’s letters to new kinds of critical scrutiny. This event will build on this important work, exploring Romantic art, culture and society through the prism provided by the landscape painter’s correspondence.

The central structuring concept of this interdisciplinary conference is that speakers will be asked to focus on a single letter written by the artist, his correspondents, or another contemporary figure whose work, life or letters can be understood in productive relation to Constable himself. These individual letters will be used to open up new questions and arguments about Constable’s life, practice and identity as a painter, and about the wider artistic, literary, religious and political cultures of his era. We also hope to throw light on the intersections of the personal and the professional, and the very different modes of sociability, that are made visible in Constable’s correspondence. Finally, we look forward to seeing how examples of this correspondence might help us better understand and interpret individual pictures by the artist.

Rereading Constable: Life, Art and Letters is being convened by Stephen Daniels and Mark Hallett and forms part of the programme of events associated with the Centre’s Generation Landscape research project.

To propose a paper, please email an abstract of 250–300 words and a 50-word biography in a single Word document to [email protected] by midnight on Wednesday 31 August 2022. Proposals should set out your interest in the topic, identify the individual letter upon which you would like to focus and outline the kinds of issues and approaches that you would want to explore. Papers will be expected to be 20 minutes in length.

Illustration: Detail of John Constable, Letter to John Thomas Smith, dated between 16 January and 23 March 1797, pen and ink, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection