Golding Constable’s Vegetable Garden
by John Constable, 1815
© Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
The Family at East Bergholt
John Constable was the second son of Golding Constable of East Bergholt, Suffolk, and his wife Ann (née Watts). His parents at first opposed their son’s unexpected ambition to become a landscape painter rather than go into the family grain business or the church. For many years, his progress as an artist was slow, and his income continued to come mainly from his father’s allowance.
Although he had rooms in London, the centre of the Georgian art world, Constable regularly returned to the family home for long periods until his marriage in 1816. East Bergholt, the surrounding countryside, and especially the vicinity of his father’s mill at Flatford, provided the subjects for many of Constable’s most important landscapes. And until his romance with his future wife, Maria Bicknell, the Constable family was the centre of his emotional world.
A Soldier playing a Guitar
by John Constable, c. 1806
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Friends & Early Group Portraits
Friendship was important in Constable’s life, and also in his portraiture. As a man he yearned for company of a specific kind: not the great social world, but a smaller circle of intimate friends that he slowly accumulated. His finest early portraits tend to show relations, or patrons with whom he was on a friendly footing such as Henry Greswold Lewis. In 1806 he produced a large number of informal sketches of people.
These lively vignettes of Georgian life are filled with careful observation and what looks very much like pleasure in the social scene. Constable had a sharp and humorous eye
for people. He was also of an age and a temperament to take an interest in attractive young women. But Constable’s women, even the prettiest of them, are not glamorised in the manner of society beauties by Reynolds or Lawrence. They are just themselves.
Revd John Fisher
by John Constable, 1816
© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Romance & Marriage
Constable’s protracted courtship of his wife-to-be, Maria Bicknell, was complicated by her family’s opposition to the match. This hostility was largely on economic grounds: Constable was not earning enough as a painter to support himself – let alone a wife and children.
Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, was a lawyer who worked extensively for the Prince Regent, among other clients. Her grandfather, Revd Dr Durand Rhudde, was rector of East Bergholt, and a man of property, who seems to have had some unspecified quarrel with the Constable family. Not unreasonably, neither Mr Bicknell nor Dr Rhudde thought an apparently unsuccessful landscape painter a suitable spouse for the delicate Maria, who was already showing signs of suffering from tuberculosis. Consequently, Constable’s wooing lasted for seven years, and during this period, Maria’s family made attempts to separate the lovers. They were eventually married in October 1816 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, by Constable’s friend, the Revd John Fisher.
Charles Golding Constable
by John Constable, 1835-6
The Britten-Pears Foundation
Photograph: Nigel Luckhurst
The first phase of his marriage to Maria was Constable’s period of greatest contentment. In the house they rented in Keppel Street, Bloombury, he wrote to Fisher that he had passed ‘the five happiest & most interesting years of my life’, adding, ‘I got my children and my fame in that house, neither of which I would exchange with any other man’.
These were the years of the blissful sketches of Maria and the children in the garden at
Hampstead and indoors, perhaps at Keppel Street. After the mid-1820s, Constable’s family life began to darken as Maria’s illness became progressively worse. He was beset by anxieties about her health, the children’s frequent illnesses and the struggle to make sufficient income to support them all. Maria died in November 1828, leaving him the single parent of seven children. The loss clouded the remainder of Constable’s life, but his young family remained his greatest solace.
by John Constable, c.1818
Barnsley MBC Museum Service, Cannon Hall Museum
Immediately after his marriage, with a wife and, soon, a young family to support, Constable seems to have made the most determined effort of his career to make a living as a portrait painter. In the year 1818 he painted more portraits than in any other single year, and the best of these show a new richness and maturity of handling. After 1819, he enjoyed increasing success as a landscape painter and his surviving pictures of people become rarer.
However, he continued to produce remarkable portraits, especially of those he cared about. As a group, his sitters belonged to a different stratum of society from those of the leading portrait painters of the day, such as Thomas Lawrence. In general, Constable painted clergymen and their wives, landed gentry, lawyers and doctors: a world parallel to that of his almost exact contemporary, Jane Austen.