KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 6: Fall 2016
Tanka Prose: 644 words

Constable and Turner: Touching Fire

by Charles D. Tarlton

Painting by John Constable: Fire in London, Seen from Hampstead October 16, 1834
Fire in London, Seen from Hampstead October 16, 1834
Painting by John Constable

Painting by J.M.W. Turner: The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834
Painting by J.M.W. Turner

...with one’s face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of fire-drops.

—Samuel Pepys


On 6 November 1961, I was a graduate student at UCLA in California. Brush fires broke out in the canyons above Brentwood and Bel Air, the posh residential areas directly north of the University. The fires were soon out of control, burning hundreds of expensive homes in these elite areas. From a vantage on the roof of our building we could watch the progress of the fire.

After dark, you could see fires work their way up and surround a house, and, in a minute, the house would explode and disappear. This happened over and over. I remember the lights of the city illuminating the underside of huge smoke clouds rising above the hills. Hot fragments from the fire were carried away on the wind and dropped down all over town. There was a constant wailing of sirens.

the playful way fire
helps identify the man
running hot or cold
whether you warm up to it
or hold it at a distance

the thing about fire
is that it destroys and kills
what the painter sees
however is just the light
how it illuminates things

Burt Lancaster’s house
gone up in flames, Lawrence Welk
climbing on the roof 
with a hose, celebrities
their humanity exposed


Here is where the contrast between Turner and Constable seems most evident—in the use of color and the light. Turner, brash and torrential, tried to catch the essence of the flames, how they reached to set the whole of the world on fire. Turner’s fire is gnawing at his clouds.

Constable, precise and scientific, tried to paint what he saw (what he had seen and remembered, to be more precise, or made up from lots of little sketches), wanting to catch the passing moment, what he saw out of the corner of his eye; his fire and smoke reflections in his clouds.

as hot air rises
red in the sky, or yellow
fire from a dervish
mimics the sun, wild crépuscule
while the other merely glows

no one’s ever seen
flames burn through the sky like this
except in bad dreams
of hell’s worst fire and brimstone’s very dramatic

it’s still a fire though
somehow more reassuring
in its red-orange blush
like the lights of a distant
city lighting up the night


So, let’s just stipulate they’re not about fire at all, not about the destruction of Parliament, nor even about the sky or London. Let’s say they’re just about painting.

Take Constable first. His theory of painting is manifest here—the dialectic of observation and art, the exact shape of things within an exacting form.

With Turner you get drama; his subjects seem to move around the canvas, and with a brush spreading light, they seem almost to breathe.

Lastly, sound. You’re not even tempted to listen to a Constable—a slight lapping of water against a boat or wagon wheel, the barking of a dog, the faintest rumble from his distant clouds.

But, with Turner there’s a flash, a roar and a rush of wind, the loud long squeal of brakes just before a crash, ingots tumbling from a white-hot furnace.

how you draw a moon
make marks resembling steeples
the dome of St. Paul’s
a sliver of cloud-masked moon
balancing fire whirls of red

the artist delights 
in the doubling up of fire
on the reflecting
river, where soft sky and cloud
prop up toxic red and yellow

is there a final
word to be said? Should they both
be equally praised
in histories of painting?
—how do you align yourself?



Publisher’s Notes:

1. The epigraph above is from an entry dated 2 September 1666 in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Globe edition, 1905, page 414). The full text is available online via Project Gutenberg, and also at Phil Gyford’s nicely done blog, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary.

2. Both paintings above are in the public domain, and both reproductions were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons: Fire in London... and The Burning...

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