Constable, John (1776-1837) (DNB00)
|←Constable, John (1676?-1744)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 12
Constable, John (1776-1837)
CONSTABLE, JOHN (1776–1837), landscape-painter, was born at East Bergholt in Suffolk on 11 June 1776. His father, Golding Constable, was the grandson of a Yorkshire farmer who had settled at Bures, a village on the Essex side of the Stour, some eight or nine miles west of East Bergholt, where Golding Constable built himself a house of sufficient importance to be mentioned in 'The Beauties of England and Wales.' Golding Constable inherited a considerable property from a rich uncle, including the watermill at Flatford. To this he added, by purchase, the watermill at Dedham, a village in Essex, near to East Bergholt, and two windmills near the latter place, to which he moved in 1774. Here John Constable, the second child, was born, and he was so weakly at his birth that he was baptised the same day. He developed, however, into a strong healthy boy, and when about seven he was sent to a boarding-school and then to a school at Lavenham, where there was a tyrannical usher. Thence he was removed to the grammar school at Dedham, where he had a very kind master, Dr. Grimwood, from whom he gained some knowledge of Latin, to which ne afterwards added a little French. His father at first intended him for the church, and afterwards wished liim to be a miller, but his artistic proclivities were too strong to be repressed, and eventually he was left to follow his natural bent. His attenipt to pursue the business of a miller began when he was about eighteen, and he is said to have performed his duties carefully and well, but it lasted about a year only, during which time he earned for himself in the neighbourhood the name of 'the handsome miller.' Other accounts say that he spent most of this time in observing the effects of nature, in sketching in the fields, and copy ing drawings by Girtin lent him by Sir George Beaumont of Coleorton [q. v.], whose mother lived at Dedham. Sir George also showed Constable that favourite Claude which he used to carry about in his carriage, and allowed him to copy it. His first encouragement in art thus appears to have been given him by the strong adherent of the conventional school of landscape, the apostle of the 'brown tree,' the most noted champion, in fact, of those canons of landscape art against which Constable was to lead the first signal revolt. As Turner had his Girtin, and Crome his Ladbrooke, Constable in like manner had a fellow-student of nature ; his name was Dunthome, the village plumber and glazier, who roamed and studied nature with him in the fields, and remained his friend through life. They used also to paint at Dunthome's cottage, which was close to Constable's home, and also at a room they hired for the purpose in the village.
Sir George Beaumont, for all his dilettanteism, had a fine discernment, and was a true lover of art, and he used his influence to persuade Constable's parents to allow him to go to London to study art, which he did for the first time in 1795. Here he met with encouragement from Joseph Farington, R.A., and made acquaintance with J. T. Smith, the author of 'Nollekens and his Times,' &c., who appears to have etched one or two of Constable's sketches (contained in letters from Constable) in his series of picturesque cottages. From Smith Constable received some instruction in etching, and there are two small etchings by Constable in the British Museum. At the ena of 1797 he went home to take the place of his father's old clerk who had died, but in 1799 he returned to the metropolis, and on 4 Feb. was admitted as a student of the Royal Academy. His studies were assisted by Farington and lieinagle, and he commenced his artistic life as a portrait-painter with an occasional attempt at historical painting. His desire for independence soon shows itself in his letters to Dunthorne. J. T. Smith has offered to sell his drawing in his shop, and he hopes thereby to clear his rent (1799). He was not without resources though, for he and Reina^le club 70l. together to buy a Ruysdael, which he copies. He goes about too a little; he is at Ipswich in 1799, at Helmingham in 1800, in Derbyshire in 1801. In London he changes his lodgings from Cecil Street (1799) to 50 Rathbone Place (1802). It was not till this year that he exhibited at the Royal Academy, and the work that he sent was a landscape. West was president of the Royal Academy at this time, and gaye Constable kind encouragement. Constable used to say that the best lesson he eyer had was from West, who told him to remember 'that light and shadow neyer stand still.' Another good piece of adyice giyen him by the president, who himselfoccasionally tried landscape, was 'Your darks should look like darks of silver, and not of lead or slate.' After this he devoted himself to the study of nature and landscape art, and sj^nt the summer months in the country, 'living nearly always in the fields and seemg nobody but field labourers.' After this, with the exception of two altar-pieces, painted for churches in Suffolk at Brantham (1804), 'Christ blessing Little Children 'and Nayland (1809), 'Christ blessing the Bread and Wine,' and an occasional portrait, there is no record of his again leaving that path of art which appears to have been marked out for him by nature herself.
The result of the exhibition appears to have fixed his principles in art and the rules of his conduct &r life. 'In the last two years,' he writes, 'I have been running after pictures and seeking truth at second-hand. I have not endeayoured to represent nature with the same eleyation of mind with which I set out, but haye rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men. I am come to a determination to make no idle visits this summer nor to give up any time to commonplace people. I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall endeayour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me. There is little or nothing in the exhibition worth looking up to. There is room enough for a natural painter. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do somcthing beyond the truth. Fashion always had and always will haye its day, but truth in all things only will last, and can only haye just claims on posterity. I haye reaped considerable benefit from exhibiting; it shows me where I am, and, in fact, tells me what nothing else could.' This year he was oifered, through Dr. John Fisher, rector of Langham, Suffolk, a situation as drawing-master at a school, but he, by the advice and with the assistimce of West, refused it without hurting the feelings of his patron. This Fisher was soon afterwards made bishop, first of Exeter and then of Salisbury. He was introduced to Constable by the Hurlocks, and was always a good friend to the artist till his death. He must not, howeyer, be confounded with the Rev. John Fisher, his nephew. Constable's more intimate friend and enthusiastic admirer, who afterwards became the bishop's chaplain and archdeacon of Berkshire. A year later (1803) Constable attained complete confidence in his powers, and writes : 'I feel more than eyer a decided cony iction that I shall some time or other makesome good pictures — Pictures that shall be yaluable to posterity if do not reap the benefit of them. He was unfortunately almost done in this conviction. He was endeayouring to do what had never been done before, to paint English landscape without 'fid-de-lal or fiddle-de-dee,' as he expressed it. He was altogether too original and too English to succeed. Wilson's art had been based upon Claude, and Gainsborough's on the Dutch school, and connoisseurs who had not bought their landscapes when they were aliye were beginning to pay good prices for them now. But Constable followed nobody, not eyen in method — he painted effects which had never been painted before in a style unassociated with the name of any great painter. Moreoyer, his subjects were humble, no lakes or castles, mountains or temples, and it was scarcely yet recognised that the daily beauties of ordinary English scenery were worthy subjects for a great artist, and worthy possessions for men of taste. So Constable had to content himself with his own opinions and feelings, and to go on steadily in a path which he Knew was the right and only one for him. His enthusiasm and patience were equal to the great occasion, and they were not altogether without sympathy. His friend, the Rev. John Fisher (sixteen years his junior) believed in him, and bought as many of his pictures as he could afibra,and his maternal uncle, David Pyke Watts, was kind and liberal to him. He could also soon reckon as his friends several eminent artists, among whom, besides those already mentioned, were Jackson and Wilkie (to whom he sat for the head of the physician in 'The Sick Lady,' and again later in life for another physician in Wilkie's picture of Columbus) and Stothard, with whom he used to take long walks. Nevertheless he did not sell a single picture to a stranger till 1814. When he was thirty-eight years old, what little money he earned came from portraits and copies of pictures. Several of the latter wore copies of portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted for the Earl of Dysart. He did not strive to make a show. His pictures at the Academy were not large or striking in subject, and were generally described in the catalogue by such simple titles as 'Landscape' or 'Study from Nature.' The only work he ever exhibited with a subject and title calculated to appeal to the popular mind was a drawing of 'H.M.S. Victory — Captain E. Harvey — at Trafalgar,' which he sent to the Academy in 1806. In 1803 he had taken a trip from London to Deal in an East Tndiaman, the Ooutts, and made about 130 sketches. These included three of the Victory then just fresh firom the dock at Chatham. In 1807 he sent three drawings of the lake country, to which he had paid a visit the previous year, but he never painted a picture from the numerous sketches he took during the tour. His mind was not constituted, as his friend Leslie admits, to enjoy the sublimer scenery of nature. He was essentially a pastoral painter with an intense affection to the familiar scenes of his boyhood, like the poet Clare. His power was in a great measure due to his recognition of his natural limits and his complete contentment with them. He did not aspire to be a universal painter, desiring only to paint well those things he knew and loved well. He said, 'I imagine myself to be driving a nail. I have driven it some way, and by persevering I may drive it home ; by quitting it to attack otners, though I may amuse myself, I do not advance beyond the first, while the particular nail stands still.' In 1812 he writes to Miss Maria Bicknell : 'I have now a path marked out very distinctly for myself, and I am desirous of pursuing it uninterruptedly.'
His health had been affected in the previous year (1811) from his love of this lady, whom he had known when a boy. His love was returned by Miss Bicknell, but not approved by the family. Her father was solicitor to the admiralty, and afterwards to the prince regent ; and her grandfather was the Rev. Dr. Rhudde, rector of East Bergholt, his native village. A millowner's son and an unsuccessful painter was not an eligible match. Dr. Rhudde did not know Constable, and Mr. Bicknell, though he knew and apparently always liked him personally, did not wish to offend Dr. Rhudde, from whom his daughter had expectations. The lovers were driven to correspondence, which lasted for five years. The extracts from it in Leslie's 'Life' are well worth reading. Artless and without extravagance the letters breathe a spirit of quiet deep affection and perfect constancy. The lovers do not go into raptures and do not quarrel, have never anytiiing of much importance to say, nor any great thoughts to communicate, but they are always brave and Salient and faithful. At first Miss Bicknell's nty seems to have a little the better of her love, but the 'Dear sir' soon ripens into 'Deareat John,' and writing, which has hitherto been disagreeable to her, becomes her greatest pleasure. In 1812 he tells her of a fire at his lodgings, and how he saved a poor woman's money which she had left in her bed. In 1813 he speaks of the success of his picture at the Academy, 'Landscape — Boys Fishing,' and of his growing reputation as a portrait-painter. He gets fifteen guineas a head, has painted full-lengths of Lady Heathcote and her mother. For the first time his pockets are full of money. He is free from ebt, and has had no assistance from his father. He dines at the Royal Academy, and is a good deal entertained with Turner, who sits next to him. 'I alway expected to find him what I did ; he has a wonderful range of mind.' Next year sees improvement m his prospects as a landscape-painter. His 'Windmill' is given to John Landseer to engrave, and he sells two pictures — one to Mr. Allnutt and another to Mr. James Carpenter. In 1815 Constable is permitted to visit Miss Bicknell at her fathers house at Spring Gardens, which makes Dr. Rhudde very angry, and he says that he considers Maria no longer his granddaughter. In this year thi; mothers of both the lovers died, and in the next Constable's father also. Miss Bicknell was now twenty-nine and Constable forty, and they agreed to wait no longer. His friend, the Rev. J. Fisher, seems to have sug^sted their marriage, and himself performed the ceremony at St. Martin's Church on 2 Oct. 1816. His portrait by Constable appeared in the next year's Academy. The father of Miss Bicknell was soon reconciled, and the grand- father, though it is not recorded whether he relented during his life, left Mrs. Constable 4,000l. at his opath three years after.
The newly married couple took up their abode at 63 Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, where Constable had lived for some years ; thence they moved, in 1817 or 1818, to 1 Keppel Street. In 1822 their address was 8 Keppel Street, and in this year they moved to 35 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Sijuare (Farmgton's old house), where he remained till his death. He also for some years had a supplementary residence at Hampstoad. In 1821 It was 2 Lower Terrace, but he does not appear to have taken a house there till 1826, when he took a small one in Well Walk, and let a great part of his house in Charlotte Street, reserving his studio and a few other rooms, and going backwards and forwards every day. In 1819 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and exhibited one of his finest pictures, now generally known as 'The White Horse,' but called in the catalogue 'A Scene on the River Stour.' This was purchased by his friend Fisher, now archdeacon. He was now forty-three years of age, and he owed his election, not to any favouritism or even popularity, but, as Fisher wrote, 'solely to his own unsupported, unpatronised merits.' His house was full of unsold pictures, and he advertised for the public to come to see them gratis. Whether this invitation was largely accepted or not does not appear, but there is no doubt that, in spite of the opportunities afforded to the public of seeing his pictures on the walls of the National Gallery and the British Gallery, and in his own house, he never attained any great measure of popularity or success in his own country during his life. The first breeze of real fame came from France. In 1821 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a picture called 'A Landscape — Noon,' which is now known as 'The Hay Wain,' presented by Mr. Henry Vaughan to the National Gallery in 1886. Its orst purchaser was a Frenchman, who bought it and two other pictures for 250l. The purchaser sent it to the Salon in 1824, together with a view on the Thames at the opening of Waterloo Bridge, called by CJonstable the 'small Waterloo,' to distinguish it from the larger picture, then projected but not finished for many years after. What is called the romantic school of France had then begun. It was a revolt against the habitual conventionalism, the pseudo-classicism, and the falseness of the school of the empire headed by David. The revolt was headed by Baron Gros, G6ricault, and Delacroix among the figure painters, and by Paul Huet in landscape. Constable's pictures revealed to them a fresh and natural way of observing and recording natural effects. Their profound influence on the modern school of French landscape is fully acknowledged by French critics (see Burger in Histoire des Peintres, article 'Constable,' and Chesneau in La Peinture Anglaise), Delacroix himself was so impressed with Constable's landscapes, that he painted his own 'Massacre de Scio' entirely over again in four days. After being exhibited a few weeks they were removed from their original situations to a post of honour, 'two prime places in the principal room.' Constable writes: 'They acknowledge the richness of texture and the surface of things. They are struck with their vivacity and freshness, things unknown to their own pictures.' Constable was awarded a gold medal by the king of France (Charles X). Medals were also given to Bonington [q. v.] and Copley Fielding, and Sir Thomas Luawrence was created a knight of the Legion of Honour. The effect of Constable's 'White Horse ' at the exhibition at Lille in 1825 was equally great and produced another gold medal.
No such recognition was accorded him in England. Things had improved a little down to 1826. In 1822 he writes that 'several cheering things have happened to me professionially. 'I am certain my reputation rises as a landscape-painter and that my style of art, as Farington always said it would, is fast becoming a distinct feature.' This year Bishop Fisher conunissioned Constable to paint a picture of Salisbury Cathedral from his grounds, as a present to his daughter on her marriage, but ill-health prevented the artist from finishing it till 1823. This, now in the South Kensington Museum, is one of the most beautiful of his pictures; out it did not quite please the bishop, and Constable painted him another, with a slight alteration, which is now in the possession of the bishop's descendants. In 1824 he sold his large picture of 'A Boat passing a Lock' to Mr. Morrison for a hundred and fifty guineas (including frame), but he was not so successful with 'The Jumping Horse' of next year, nor with the 'Cornfield' of the year after, which is now in the National Gallery. During these years his family had been increasing, and in 1828 his seventh and last child (Lionel) was born. Though since the legacy of Dr. Rhudde and the death of his own father his income appears to have been sufficient for his wants, it is evident that he was sometimes hard pushed and had to employ much of the time he would have devoted to landscapes in copying pictures and making portraits. Now, however, all strain of the kind was ended by the death of Mr. Bickncll, who left the Constables 20,000l. 'This,' he wrote, 'I will settle on my wife and children, and I shall then be able to stand before a six-foot canvas with a mind at ease, thank God ! 'But a greater misfortune than poverty was at hand. His wife, always consumptive, died towards the end of the year, leaving him with seven children, the youngest not a year old.
He bore up bravely against the bereavement, but when he next year (1829) was at length elected an Academician he felt the tardy honour had come too late. 'It has been delayed,' he said, 'too long, and I cannot impart it.' It was also accompanied by much bitterness against Sir Thomas Lawrence, the president, who told him he ought to consider himself fortunate at being elected. This seems to have been also the opinion of ^he public, who did not seem to appreciate him any more after his election. But he went on bravely working, though saddened, till his death in 1837. In 1831 appeared his grand ' Salisbunr Cathedral from the Meadows,' and in 1832 his long-delayed 'Waterloo Bridge,' called in the catalogue ' White- hall Stairs, June 18tli, 1817.' Though of extraordinary brilliance in its lighting and colour, it achieyed no success at its exhibition. Notwithstanding the years taken in its execution it was judged unfinished even by his friend Stothard. In this picture Constable carried his suppression of uetail in order to gain general truth and power of effect to an extreme if not excess. It was almost entirely executed with the palette knife, and was probably the cause of the artist's writing to Leslie in 1833 : 'I have laid it (the palette knife) down, but not till I had cut my throat with it.' In 1836 was exhibited 'The Valley Farm,' which was purchased by Mr. Vernon and is now in the National Gallery. In 1832 he lost his friend Archdeacon Fisher, and in the same year died John Dunthome (the son of his older friend of the same name), who had for many years worked as his assistant in London, and had been set up by him as a picture-cleaner. He found some new and valuable friends in Mr. Evans, his medical adviser, Mr. Purton of Hampstead, and Mr. George Constable of Arundel (a namesake but no relation), and he seems to have found also a new source of inspiration in the scenery round Arundel. He wrote to Mr. G. Constable : 'I have never seen such scenery as your country affords ; I prefer it to any other for my pictures.' He was enga^d on a picture of 'Arundel Mill and Castle,' which he meant to be his best work, when he died. In these later years (1830-7), marked by numerous fine pictures besides those already mentioned, e.g. 'The Mound of the City of Old Sarum ' (1834^ and 'The Cenotaph to the memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds at Coleorton' (1836), he was also much interested in a series of twenty mezzotint engravings from his works by David Lucas, which were brought out in five parts and published in 1833 with the following title : 'Various subjects of Landscane characteristic of English Scenery, principally intended to display the Phenomena of the Chiaroscuro of Nature from Pictures by John Constable, R.A., engraved by David Lucas.' In the preface Constable describes the aims of his art and speaks of the 'rich and feeling manner 'in which Lucas had engraved his work. This praise was well deserved. Seldom has a painter found so sympathetic an interpreter as Constable in David Lucas. The wonc did not sell, however, and the plates were used to illustrate the first edition of Leslie's life of the artist. Besides this series there was another called 'English Landscape,' which contained fifteen plates, and both series were included with some others (fortr in all) in a volume published by H. 0. Bohn in 1865, called 'English Landscape Scenery.' Lucas's large plates after Constable, such as 'The Lock,' 'The Cornfield,' 'Dedham Vale,' 'The Young Waltonians,' and 'Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows,' are masterpieces of the art of mezzotint applied to landscape. His pleasure in his art and in his children, to whom he was a devoted father, never seems to have failed, but the health of his eldest son John gave him anxiety, and his own was not good, he had at least two serious illnesses before his last, and he suffered much from depression. He wrote in 1834 that his life and occupation were useless, but to the end he fillea it with work and duty. In 1836 he delivered some lectures on 'Landscape Art' at the Royal Institution, and he had previously in 1833 given one or two at Hampstead. The notes of these, preserved at the end of Leslie's 'Life,' arc full of good sense and fine observation. His death was sudden. On 30 March 1837 he walked home from a meeting of the Royal Academy with Leslie, and next day he worked at his picture of 'Arundel Mill and Castle,' and in the evening went out on a charitable errand in connection with the Artists' Benevolent Association, of which he was president. In the night he was taken ill and died. A post-mortem examination was held, but it practically left the cause of death undecidea, for it revealed no traces of disease except indigestion. He was buried at Hampstead in the same grave with his wife.
After his death a few friends bought his 'Cornfield' from his executors and presented it to the National Gallery, which now possesses three of his finest and largest works — 'The Cornfield,' 'The Valley Farm,' and 'The Hay Wain.' At the South Kensington Museum are eight pictures, six of them left by Mr. Sheepshanks. They include the 'Salisbury Cathedral' of 1823 already mentioned, 'Dedham Mill,' two views of 'Hampstead Heath' (one, No. 36, painted 1827, remarkable for its beauty), 'Boat-building,' and 'Water Meadows near Salisbury,' of singular delicacy and freshness. At South Kensington are also some studies from the nude ana a drawing of Stoke, and in the British Museum are one or two water-colour drawings and pencil sketches, including a beautiful sketch (in colour) of a waterfall. Though Constable never attained the same skill in water-colour as in oils, his sketches in this medium are always powerful and direct records of impressions, executed with extraordinary promptness and success.
So much has been said about his art in the course of this notice that it is unnecessary to add much more, and his character was so simple and noble that it may be dismissed with a few words. He was above all things faithful — faithful to one clear idea of art, Faithful to one dearly loved woman. Except a certain sarcastic humour and a bnuque independence not agreeable to all, no one has noted any defect in his conduct and dispoeition, which evidently endeared him unusually to all who knew him. No neglected genius ever bore the disappointments of life more bravely and patiently. Of his genius there can be no doubt. If its range was narrow it was eminently sincere and original. In these qualities few artists can compare with him. He was the first to paint the greenness and moisture of his native country, the first to paint the noon sunshine with its white light pouring down through the leaves and sparkling in the foliage and the grass (an effect which gave rise to the expression of 'Constable's snow '1, the first to paint truly the sun-shot clouds of a showery sky, the first to represent faithfully the rich colours of an English Bummer landscape, the first to abandon the old brown grounding of the Dutch school and to lay his tints at once fresh and air in exact imitation of nature, the first to paint so strongly the volume of trees and clouds, the body and substance of the earth, the first to suggest so fully not only the sights but the sounds of nature, the gurgle of the water, the rustle of the trees. Otter painters have made us see nature at a distance or through a window; he alone has planted our feet in her midst. Fuseli's often misquoted remark, that Constable 'makes me call for my great coat and umbrella,' was no 'slight tribute to his originality and skill and Blake once said of one of his sketches, 'This is not drawing, but inspiration.' Much has been written about Constable's art: it has been unjustly depreciated by some (including Ruskin); but his claim tc be considered the founder of the school of faithful landscape is now widely recognised at home and abroad, and the artist nimself would scarcely have wished for a higher title to immortality.
[Leslie's Life of Constable; Constable's Various Subjects of Landscape, &c,, 1833; Cunningham's Lives (Heaton); Redgrave's Century of Painting; Redgrave's Dict.; Bryan's Dict.; Wedmore's Studies in English Art (2nd ser.); Masterpieces of English Art; Art Journal, January 1855; Graves's Dict.; Histoire des Peintres; Chesneau's La Peinture Anglaise; Ruskin's Modern Painters; Revue Universelle des Arts, iv. 239; Catalogues of Royal Academy, &c.]