A legend in his own landscape: John Constable

A legend in his own landscape: For decades he was spurned by a snobby art establishment and struggled to pay the rent — even worse, it took the French to spot Constable’s genius!

  • James Hamilton has new, lively and warm-hearted biography on John Constable
  • The Suffolk-born landscape painter revolutionised the genre of painting with his pictures of Dedham Vale, which was the area that surrounded his home
  • He was bereft after his wife Maria died age 41, just 11 months after giving birth

BIOGRAPHY

CONSTABLE: A PORTRAIT 

By James Hamilton (Weidenfeld £25, 496pp)

Is this not beautiful?’ remarked John Constable to a fellow coach traveller in 1832, as they crossed the river valley at Dedham in Essex.

‘Yes, sir,’ said the fellow traveller. ‘This is Constable’s country.’

‘I am John Constable,’ he replied.

It was a gratifying moment. Aged 56, a widower and father of seven, Constable was at last ‘a legend in his own landscape’, as James Hamilton puts it in this delightful, lively and warm-hearted biography. But he was bereft without his wife Maria beside him to bask in his late-flowering success. She had died of TB aged 41, 11 months after giving birth to their seventh child.

It’s agonising to read this book if you love Constable’s paintings as I do. How could the Royal Academicians have taken ages to recognise his genius and vote him in as an Associate? ‘It’s very green,’ remarked one Academician disdainfully about one of his landscapes.

Masterpiece: Stratford Mill by John Constable painted in 1820. Constable’s unique gift was to explore the depths and varieties of cloud-affected greenness in English landscapes in a way no one yet had

Well — er — yes, that’s what the English landscape is, and Constable’s unique gift was to explore the depths and varieties of cloud-affected greenness in a way no one yet had. It was a bit like the Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart that his music had ‘too many notes’: blindness and deafness to innovative brilliance.

William Turner had been elected to the RA aged 24, but it took Constable until the age of 43 to win enough votes. For all those years, he struggled to survive, obliged to take on portrait commissions to feed his family and pay the rent.

One particularly annoying Rear Admiral made him come to his house to re-paint his uniform, changing it from red to blue because he’d been promoted. And on a lovely sunny-windy day! ‘I grudge the fine weather exceedingly,’ Constable wrote to Maria, ‘and I sincerely hope this will be the last portrait from my pencil’.

Perhaps, though, the delay in recognition gave impetus to Constable’s brazen experimentation and helped him to forge his masterpieces.

The outdoor world was his ‘laboratory’, as Hamilton puts it, thrillingly setting his work in the context of Humphry Davy a few miles away experimenting with chemistry and Faraday with electromagnetic rotations, while Constable was out in all weathers on Hampstead Heath, catching the truth about clouds with ‘an energy born of an amalgam of desperation and glorious independence, because it was clear that no one was interested’.

The snobbish British art-collecting aristocrats, who should have been buying his work, described it as ‘the art of people who worked for their living’. Constable did indeed come from a family of mill-owners — hence his profound knowledge and accuracy in depicting the workings of watermills, barges and carts.

The first fight of his life was to be allowed to become an artist rather than a merchant in the family milling business, as his father wanted.

His family comes across as a warm, clucking, Jane Austen-type crowd, Constable’s fretting mother Ann desperate to help her son get a leg-up into high society, while the snooty local clergyman Dr Rhudde did all he could to prevent his granddaughter Maria’s marriage to Constable, who, in his view, was even worse than ‘in trade’ — he was an impoverished artist — beyond the pale! He hid Maria away at the other end of England and moved her around like a hostage, determined to separate the lovers.

John Constable, aged 56, a widower and father of seven, Constable was at last ‘a legend in his own landscape’, as James Hamilton puts it in this delightful, lively and warm-hearted biography. But he was bereft without his wife Maria beside him to bask in his late-flowering success. She had died of TB aged 41, 11 months after giving birth to their seventh child

But in love as well as in art, Constable simply would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He persisted, writing hundreds of letters to her, until he and Maria finally married. Maria was perfect, ‘truly empathetic’ and ‘resolute in her understanding and acceptance that painting was his “mistress” ’.

We should still feel ashamed that it was the French who first appreciated his brilliance. Théodore Géricault came to Britain, saw his work and was ‘quite stunned by it’. The Hay Wain and View On The Stour were bought and triumphantly displayed at the Louvre. Did Constable go over to France to soak up the adulation? No. ‘I hope not to go to Paris as long as I live. I will never forsake old England, the land of my happiness.’

He was a cussed old soul. ‘Untidy,’ as one friend described him, ‘for he lived constantly in the wild, plashy, wet, dripping wood, during storm, rain and wind’, he could be both endearing and maddening.

‘Tormented, paranoid (sometimes), unkind, an anti-Reform Tory, chippy, touchy, hypochondriacal, sarcastic, gossipy, libidinous, tight with money, bigoted and rude about other artists’ are just some of the adjectives Hamilton lists.

He was by no means an alcoholic, but he did enjoy his wine. His devoted, but rather prudish, daughter Isabel later went through his letters, furiously scratching out references to his drinking, for example: ‘I drank six or seven of port &c, &c, and I think it did me no harm.’

He adored his wife but he could be pretty selfish; he would pack her off to Brighton with the children for the summer, while he worked on in splendid isolation in London, complaining to her about not feeling very well, when she was the tubercular one who really deserved the pity.

And yes, he could be eloquently rude about other artists. He couldn’t stand the fashion for mythical paintings — people ‘preferring the shaggy posterior of a satyr to the moral feeling of a landscape’. He derided ‘the stagnate sulphur’ of a Turner painting.

Were he and Turner really sworn enemies, as posterity has painted them? There was a famous quarrel at the Royal Academy in 1831, recorded by a young painter David Roberts.

He wrote that Constable had moved one of Turner’s paintings and put his own in its place, and that ‘Turner opened on him like a ferret: it was evident that Turner detested him’.

Hamilton re-evaluates this: it was ‘a partisan attack’ on Constable by the young Roberts, who had an axe to grind. In Hamilton’s view Turner and Constable were friendly rivals, who respected each other and dined with each other. The squabble was ‘an isolated event, mischievously reported’.

How on earth did he manage after Maria died? His siblings swooped to the rescue, taking the children off to Suffolk for long, happy summers. And a superb German tutor arrived at just the right moment, one Charles Boner, who became Constable’s assistant.

Constable had a gift for friendship. His best friend in the world, who encouraged and kept him going through the dark times, was Archdeacon John Fisher, nephew of the Bishop of Salisbury, who lived in Salisbury Cathedral Close.

But for that friendship, we would not have those Salisbury Cathedral masterpieces. Before he married, the friends spent their time bathing, reading, drawing and ‘puzzling out a passage or two of Horace’.

To read this book is to be taken to the best and worst of the early 1800s: the glorious civilisation of it all, the charm and beauty of ‘Constable Country’ which he immortalised, the wild cragginess of Hampstead Heath, the gaggles of rosy-cheeked children; but alongside it the snootiness of the high-born towards the low-born, and the constant terror of an early death.

Constable himself died of a heart attack in the night, aged 60, having gone to bed after a simple supper of bread, cheese and water followed by some bottled plums.

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