His beloved paintings are infamous, but who was the man behind the brush? We look at the life of John Constable to find out more about the landscape painter so inspired by the beauty of rural East Anglia.
Constable was born in June 1776 in East Bergholt, a village on the River Stour, in Suffolk. The fourht of six children, he grew up in the Stour Valley where he lived a "careless boyhood".
His father, Golding Constable, was a successful corn merchant. Having inherited Flatford Mill from his uncle, the entrepreneurial Suffolk businessman went on to own Dedham Mill, East Bergholt windmill, and around ninety-three acres of agricultural land. On top of this, he owned three dry docks and a fleet of commercial barges, plus two sea going vessels. With these, he took advantage of the East Anglian rivers and canals' potential as trade arteries to export produce before railways reached the region.
Golding did not support John's artistic ambitions. Rather, he wished for his son to take over the thriving family business, since his eldest son, Golding, had a learning disability which prevented him from doing so.
In his youth, Constable would go out into the Suffolk countryside for amateur sketching trips. The scenes he captured here "made me a painter, and I am grateful"; "the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things".
John’s mother, Ann Watts, encouraged her son’s artistic interests. It was she who introduced John to Sir George Beaumont, an amateur artist and art collector whose mother lived in nearby Dedham.
At 19 years of age, John met with Beaumont, whom he showed some of his sketches. In return, Beaumont showed Constable a small picture called Hagar and the Angel, an Italianate landscape with a bright sky painted in 1646 by Claude Lorraine. It is said that seeing this painting had a lifelong effect on Constable’s development as a painter of landscapes.
The Royal Grammar School in Dedham, which he attended having previously boarded in Colchester and briefly Lavenham, was kind to John and encouraged his interest in calligraphy and in drawing. The daily walk between his home in East Bergholt and Dedham School purportedly instilled in him a deep knowledge and love for the Suffolk countryside.
His mother was concerned that portrait paintings would earn John a better income than landscape art; John did complete around 100 portraits over his career, to bring in some money, but found it to be dull work. He was compelled to pursue landscape painting instead. In fact, in 1802 his refusal to draw the master at Great Marlow Military College was seen by Benjamin West, master of the Royal Academy, as the end to his career. But John was determined:
"For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men... There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth" - A letter to John Dunthorne
It has been said that his ‘temperament was lacking in the interpersonal skills needed by a portraitist’ (National Trust), and indeed Constable’s seriousness, especially in comparison to his handsome and sociable younger brother, has been noted.
Whilst his mother was caring and attentive to John, his two older sisters, Ann and Martha bossed their brother about. His younger sister, Mary, was John's favourite and he sketched and painted her many times.
Still, overall, the family was close-knit and provided him with love and support.
Later, while visiting relatives in Middlesex, John was introduced to the professional artist John Thomas Smith, who advised him on painting but also urged him to remain in his father's business rather than take up art professionally.
Abram, seven years younger than John, would eventually step in to run the business. Had he not, his siblings would not have had an income, and John would never have been able to attend the Royal Academy.
His father allowed him to attend the Royal Academy schools in 1799, having worked for seven years in Golding’s offices and mills. As a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections, whilst studying and copying Old Masters; he found inspiration in the likes of Thomas Gainsborough, Claude Lorrain, Peter Paul Rubens, Annibale Carracci and Jacob van Ruisdael.
A diligent and conscientious college student, John also suffered from homesickness, to which his family responded with letters and baskets of food. He enjoyed a more privileged life than some of his contemporaries due to the financial support of his affluent parents, allowing for a wide social circle in London
By 1803, he was exhibiting painting at the academy.
In ways, John was something of a pioneer. Scenes of ordinary life were unfashionable in an age of romantic visions, of wild or idealised landscapes, and mythical figures, and and yet these were his usual subjects.
His works are considered part of a new movement in art called Romanticism. Started by the English poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, it focussed on the beauties of nature, exalting emotion over reason, emphasising colour as the life and soul of painting, and making the countryside and country people its subject-matter.
Constable made efforts to explore further afield for inspiration; in 1803 he spent almost a month aboard the East Indiaman ship Coutts, which visited south-east coastal ports, and in 1806 he undertook a two-month tour of the Lake District.
Despite his stern attitude and apparently antisocial temperament, it would seem that complete rurality did not appeal to Constable. He expressed to Charles Leslie, a friend and biographer, that the solitude of the mountains in the Lakes oppressed his spirits. Of Constable, Leslie wrote:
"His nature was peculiarly social and could not feel satisfied with scenery, however grand in itself, that did not abound in human associations. He required villages, churches, farmhouses and cottages".
The romantic union of John and Maria Bicknell, whom he had met previously in East Bergholt and began courting in secret in 1809, was threatened by his financial difficulties.
Maria’s father, a solicitor, was reluctant to see Maria throw away the inheritance (even Maria herself pointed out that a penniless marriage would detract from any chances John had of making a career in painting), whilst Constable’s parents, though approving the match, were not prepared to support the marriage until Constable was financially secure. (He only sold his first important canvas in 1819).
His parents, however, passed away in 1816, leading John to inherit a fifth share in the family business. The marriage went ahead in October of the same year.
It is said that Maria and John’s honeymoon, touring the south coast and particularly seeing the sea at Weymouth and Brighton, inspired Constable to develop new techniques of brilliant colour and vivacious brushwork. At the same time, a greater emotional range began to register in his art.
Maria and John would had one miscarriage and seven live births; by 1824, they had four children, John, Minna, Charley and Isabel and although suffering from tuberculosis, Maria gave birth to three more, Emily, Alfie and Lionel.
John Constable was an indulgent, devoted father and showed his affection openly in his letters.
Maria, 12 years John’s junior, sucumbed to her illness in November 1828, aged 41.
Her death left him utterly heartbroken, bereft of his muse, and the lone parent to seven children. He wrote to his brother Golding, "hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel - God only knows how my children will be brought up... the face of the World is totally changed to me".
Thereafter, he always dressed in black and was, according to Leslie, "a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts".
Nonetheless, he found the strength to continue working, painting in several places including London, Salisbury and Petworth. His work became more popular and started to sell, allowing him to continue to provide for and educate the children.
Further heartbreak was in store for John, however, as Emily, who was born prematurely, died of scarlet fever aged fourteen, and Charles-Golding, who was the only child to marry and have children, upset John by going to sea at the age of fourteen.
"In the coach yesterday coming from Suffolk, were two gentleman and myself all strangers to each other. In passing through the valley about Dedham, one of them remarked to me - on my saying it was beautiful - "yes sir - this is Constable's Country!" I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it".
Constable was travelling back from the funeral of his assistant Johnny Dunthorpe in East Bergholt when he heard the term applied to Dedham Vale for the first time.
In later years, despite never truly regaining the freshness and inspiration of his Suffolk landscapes due to Maria’s death, John was finally admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy.
He was aged 52 - neither his wife or parents had lived long enough to see this public recognition.
In 1831 he was appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, where he seems to have been popular with the students.
He also began to deliver public lectures on the history of landscape painting, which were attended by distinguished audiences. In a series of such lectures at the Royal Institution, Constable proposed a threefold thesis: firstly, landscape painting is scientific as well as poetic; secondly, the imagination cannot alone produce art to bear comparison with reality; and thirdly, no great painter was ever self-taught.
It is said the strain of supporting seven children into adulthood eventually took a toll on Constable’s artistic output and health. Furthermore, he had always been prone to neuralgia, depression, and anxiety, due to a variety of factors - his slow progress as an artist, money worries, and his wife and children’s poor health.
In 1833 he was weakened by an attack of rheumatic fever.
4 years later, just two months before his 61st birthday, Constable returned from a charity event for the Artists General Benevolent Institution to his Charlotte Street studio. Having rented out most of the upstairs of his studio in order to fund the cost of the family home in Hampstead, he decided to sleep in the attic.
His oldest son, John Charles Constable, was staying with him at the time.
He heard his father call out in great pain, feeling giddy. John refused to have the doctor called, and the pain became worse. His son called for their neighbour, a medical man, but by the time he arrived Constable seemed to have fallen asleep, so his son thought. He had in fact lost consciousness. Half an hour after the onset of pain, he died.
At his funeral, his brothers, Golding and Abram led the mourners. John Charles, Constable's eldest son who had been with his father when he died, was too ill and upset to attend.
He was buried alongside Maria in the graveyard of St John’s Church in Hampstead. His children John Charles Constable and Charles Golding Constable are also buried in this family tomb.
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