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Tuesday 11 June 2013

The life of the Romantic landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837)

John Constable  from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)
John Constable
from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)

John Constable (11 June 1776 - 31 March 1837) was an English Romantic painter famous for his landscapes, including many based on the area around his home in Suffolk, now known as “Constable Country”. His most famous works include The Hay Wain, Dedham Vale and View of Salisbury Cathedral.

Family background

Constable was born in East Bergholt in Suffolk on 11 June 1776. He was the second son of Golding Constable, a gentleman farmer and mill owner, and his wife Ann. He left boarding school after being badly bullied and became a day pupil at Dedham grammar school where the headmaster, Reverend Grimwood, encouraged his early interest in painting.

The handsome miller

Already desirous of becoming an artist, Constable fought against his family’s desire for him to enter the church. However, when it became clear that his elder brother, who had learning difficulties, would be unable to take over from his father, Constable accepted his duty and entered the family business.

Through Constable’s work, he became intimately acquainted with the countryside surrounding the River Stour, where his father owned the copyhold of Flatford watermill. Constable was known in the neighbourhood as the “handsome miller”.(1)

The Windmill - an engraving by David Lucas from Spring (1792)  from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)
The Windmill - an engraving by David Lucas from Spring (1792)
from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)
Part-time painter

In his spare time, Constable continued to paint and draw, advised by his friend and fellow painter, John Dunthorne, a local plumber whose son later became his studio assistant.

In 1795, Constable’s mother gained him a valuable introduction to Sir George Beaumont and a year later he met two other artists, John Cranch and JT "Antiquity" Smith, who were able to give him practical drawing instruction.

The Royal Academy 

When his younger brother Abram was old enough to take over his role in the family business, Constable was free to go to London to study art. On 4 February 1799 (1), he was admitted as a student at the Royal Academy, firstly to study antiquities and later life studies.

Drawing from life at the Royal Academy  from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Drawing from life at the Royal Academy
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Although Constable started exhibiting at the Royal Academy in 1802, his work was criticised for its poor finish or “unfinished handling”; he was not elected an associate until November 1819, and was only made a full member on 10 February 1829.


Constable was fortunate to have supportive friends offering both patronage and advice. Joseph Farington was an influential member of the Royal Academy who, along with Sir George Beaumont, gave him access to old masters, which he copied to develop his powers of execution. Another valuable friend was Dr John Fisher, who became Bishop of Salisbury and chaplain to the Royal Academy, and whose nephew John Fisher became Constable’s best friend.

Landscape artist

Constable was a prolific artist, producing lots of sketches from which he painted landscapes, including a number of large-scale paintings which he referred to as his “six-footers”.

Unfortunately his devotion to landscapes was not financially rewarding. He was forced to paint portraits to earn money and his parents, who were still subsidising his studies in 1809, urged him to follow this more lucrative path.

Despite suffering from depression and bouts of illness, Constable worked tirelessly, developing his style of landscape painting and filling his studio with pictures of Dedham Vale.

The love of Constable’s life

Constable fell in love with Maria Bicknell and when she came of age in 1809, the couple declared their mutual affection. But they met with stern resistance from Maria’s family, in particular, from Maria’s maternal grandfather, Dr Rhudde, who threatened to disinherit Maria’s family if she married Constable. Constable was determined to prove himself and gain financial security.

However, it was not until he received an inheritance on the death of his father that Constable was finally able to marry. Constable and Maria were married on 2 October 1816 at St Martin’s Church, London. The ceremony was conducted by John Fisher who invited the Constables to spend their honeymoon at his vicarage in Osmington, near Weymouth, in Dorset.

Devoted husband and father

Constable was devoted to his wife and their seven children, but Maria’s health proved to be a constant source of concern. In August 1819, he rented a cottage in Hampstead to enable his family to escape from the bad air of London and they later moved there permanently. Constable split his time between his London studio and his family home.
Hampstead Heath - an engraving by David Lucas  from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)
Hampstead Heath - an engraving by David Lucas
from Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845)
In 1820, Constable visited his friend Fisher, now a canon in Salisbury, and in 1824, he took his family to Brighton so that Maria could benefit from the sea air.

But Maria’s consumption worsened and she died of tuberculosis on 23 November 1828, leaving Constable heartbroken and with seven children under the age of eleven to look after.

Recognition at last

Constable had sold very little of what he had exhibited, but in 1818, he sold two paintings and started to be noticed by the reviewers. But praise was not universal. Although his work was appreciated for its power, it was often criticised for its surface texture, which was accused of being like “chopped hay and whitewash” and a certain spottiness - "Constable's snow"(2).

Constable received more widespread success in France. He exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824 and was awarded a gold medal by Charles X and won another in Lille in 1826.

Engravings and lectures

Constable commissioned David Lucas to engrave several of his paintings and sketches and was intimately involved in their preparation before their publication in 1830-2.

In the last years of his life, Constable gave various lectures including a series at the Royal Institution on the history of landscape painting in May to June 1836. He was elected a member of both the Royal Institution and the Graphic Society in 1836.

The Royal Institution  from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Royal Institution
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)

Constable suddenly became ill on 31 March 1837 with sickness and giddiness and died that night.(3) The exact cause of his death is unknown.

He was buried in the churchyard of St John’s, Hampstead, next to his wife, leaving an estate valued at £25,000 to his seven children who were all under age.

Read about another Regency era painter - Sir Thomas Lawrence.

(1) From Memoirs of the Life of John Constable by CR Leslie (1845).
(2) From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for John Constable by Judy Crosby Ivy (see below).
(3) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that Constable died in the early hours of 1 April, but all other sources state the date of death as 31 March.

Sources used include:
Ivy, Judy Crosby, Constable, John (1776-1837) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2008, accessed 5 Oct 2012)
Leslie, Charles Robert, RA, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, Esq, RA (1845)

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