Wain man

Touchy, paranoid, unkind... John Constable’s character is brought to vivid life in a new biography, writes Maggie Gruner

Friday, 25th March — By Maggie Gruner


Portrait of John Constable by Ramsay Richard Reinagle

AMID shattering glass, flames and smoke at a house in Fitzrovia, artist John Constable helped a man and his pregnant wife to safety.

The early-hours fire in 1812 had spread to the Charlotte Street house, where the artist had rooms, from an upholsterer’s workshop at the back, James Hamilton writes in his new book, Constable: A Portrait.

He describes how Constable helped the upholsterer and his wife out of the building, carried an in-progress painting, his writing desk and letters downstairs – then dashed up to the attic to rescue a distressed servant’s valuables.

The book gives a captivating close-up view of the life, work and personality of this revolutionary painter of English landscapes and skies, who “let his brushes fly” with excitement in his Hampstead paintings.

Hamilton takes us into Constable’s untidy Fitzrovia studio, painted a “sort of purple brown,” and with him onto Hampstead Heath, where he goes in a snowstorm to sketch an ash, lies at the foot of a tree, watching the motion of the leaves, or looks at the skies, studying them day after day.

Personal detail abounds. Constable was plagued by toothache; as a commissioner responsible for “watching the streets” of the Charlotte Street neighbourhood he had to break up two boys fighting who had attracted a “great mob… of at least 100 people”; one of his favourite meals was toad-in-the-hole (not sausages in batter, as now, but beef or boned and stuffed chicken in a batter shell).

The author told Review that in his research into Constable he was surprised by “the extent and depth of his anxieties, and his courage in overcoming them and sticking with his vision”.

Although fame came slowly to Constable, whose family owned a Suffolk milling business, his paintings of the Suffolk/Essex borderland eventually earned it the name “Constable country”.

And he made Hampstead his own, too. Hampstead Heath was, Hamilton writes, “new-found land” for Constable.

Constable’s Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead, 1821-22

In his paintings of the Heath the sky begins to dominate the canvas. He paints a sweeping view towards Harrow, evokes a passing storm in his picture Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead. On Hampstead Heath he embarked on a series of cloud studies, painted in oil on paper or card.

He found the “elemental and violent” in the clouds, experimented with portraying meteorological processes, and Hampstead became his “laboratory”, Hamilton notes.

The painter moved his family there (their homes included Albion Cottage and Stamford Lodge – both now gone – near Whitestone Pond, and houses in Downshire Hill and Well Walk) so his ailing wife, Maria, and children could have good air and he could easily commute to join them from the city.

Constable scanned the sky at Camden Town in July 1824, when he was among a crowd of thousands watching the launch of a hydrogen gas balloon, the Royal George.

Hamilton writes that Constable’s letters present “a troubled individual, tormented, paranoid (sometimes), speaking his mind even to the extent of unkindness, a vehemently anti-Reform Tory… touchy, hypochondriacal, sarcastic…” The list goes on. He was, apparently, tight-fisted, a bigot and rude about other painters’ work.

He said a landscape by William Collins looked “like a large cow-turd”, and reportedly declared that the artist Turner’s pictures were “only fit to be spit upon”.

But Hamilton contends that antagonisms between Constable and Turner have been “much manufactured”. He told Review he was surprised by the depth of Constable’s “admiration and indeed friendship with Turner. This runs counter to received views.”

Sales of Constable’s landscape paintings went slowly and he despaired of being a popular artist. After years of trying, he was 43 when he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. Turner had been elected at 24.
Constable also had to wait to marry Maria Bicknell. Her family blocked the match because the artist was too poor. They finally wed after a seven-year courtship.

He’d told Maria landscape was his “mistress” and she supported him, but tired of his absences. Multiple pregnancies strained her frail health and she died of tuberculosis, aged 41, in her husband’s arms at Well Walk. Constable was distraught.

Uppity English collectors snubbed him, preferring paintings of historical and literary subjects. It was the French who first appreciated the brilliance of this painter of English landscapes.

An art historian who has also written biographies of Gainsborough and Turner, Hamilton explained that “advanced French artists – among them Gericault and Delacroix – on their way towards fresh nature painting had the eye for Constable’s modernity that English artists and collectors did not.

“The French were on their way to Impressionism. Constable was a brother-Impressionist, and they saw a fellow-traveller in him.”

His famous painting The Hay Wain, together with View on the Stour near Dedham, hung in the Louvre in 1824.

So, does Hamilton like Constable? Would he invite him to dinner? “Yes, I do like him. And I would most certainly invite him to dinner. We share an enjoyment of toad-in-the-hole.”

Constable: A Portrait. By James Hamilton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

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