John Constable - In Love

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John Constable fell in love with Maria Bicknell, the daughter of Charles Bicknell, a successful London solicitor serving amongst others, the Prince Regent. 

After a seven year secret courtship, John and Maria eventually married in 1816, in St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London. None of the Constable or Bicknell family attended. John Constable was aged 40 and Maria was 28.

The Course of True Love

John Constable first met his future wife, Maria Bicknell while she was visiting her maternal grandfather, the wealthy and irascible Rev Dr Durrande Rhudde, rector in East Bergholt. The couple met again when Maria was in her early twenties and they fell deeply in love and assumed they would marry. However, Maria's grandfather had other ideas and managed to thwart their marriage plans. He'd argued with John's father, Golding Constable at some time in the past (we do not know what the issue was) and he felt he should have been consulted about (and have sanctioned) any courtship in the Bicknell family. He considered John Constable incapable of earning enough money to support a wife and he thoroughly disapproved of Constable’s friendship with John Dunthorne whom  he considered to be a dangerous aetheist. Rev Dr Rhudde threatened to disinherit Maria if she married Constable. John had no regular income except the £100 a year he received from his father and so the couple were unable to marry.

Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, followed Rev Rhudde’s lead and banned the couple from meeting - although some of the younger Bicknell/Rhudde relatives thoroughly approved of the relationship. The rift with the rector of East Bergholt made for local difficulties for the Constable family. Ann Constable was always thinking of ways John might repair the relationship with the rector, including the gift of a painting of East Bergholt Church painted by her son.  The rector responded to the gift by sending John a £5 note in payment - not wanting to accept the painting from him as a gift.

Maria became John Constable’s muse and inspiration and they continued their courtship in secret for seven years. The strain of separation and secrecy caused John to become stressed and depressed and he gained a reputation for being moody, hostile and sarcastic in his professional dealings which did not help sell his pictures!

The death of John's father, Golding Constable in 1816 revealed the unusual arrangements he had made to ensure all his children received financial support after his death. For John, his father’s death led to an income of £200 a year and he also benefited from the sale of his father’s properties. A legal agreement Golding had drawn up with his youngest son Abram meant that Abram would manage the family business for the benefit of his brothers and sisters.

Marriage

With an income of £200+ a year John and Maria could afford to marry which, against the wishes of her father and grandfather, they did in London in 1816. Maria was immediately disinherited by her grandfather but her father, Charles Bicknell softened and gave the couple an allowance of £50 per year. On his death in 1819, Rev Dr Rhudde relented and left all his grandchildren, including Maria, £4,000 each.

During twelve years of marriage Maria had one miscarriage and seven live births. By 1824, she had given birth to four children, John, Minna, Charley and Isabel and although suffering from tuberculosis, she gave birth to three more, Emily, Alfie and Lionel before she died in November 1828 at the age of 41, ten months after the birth of her youngest son.

Children

John Constable was an indulgent, devoted father and showed his affection openly in his letters and in 1843 CR Leslie reports in his Memoirs of the Life of John Constable:

  • His children were as likely to be seen in his arms as those of his mother or nursemaid
  • “His fondness for children exceeded …. that of any man I ever knew”
  • “Children should be respected” (letters of John Constable)
  • “They were happy days with me when I had infants” (letters of John Constable)

John was regarded by some as a permissive father. When one of his sons dashed into his studio with a broom and tore through one of the canvasses, Constable’s rebuke was “Oh! My dear pet! See what we have done! Dear, dear! What shall we think to mend it? I can’t think – can you?”

There were seven Constable Children

  1. John Charles 1817- 1841 died aged 24
  2. Maria-Louisa (Minna) 1819-1885  died aged 66
  3. Charles-Golding (Charley) 1821-1879 died aged 58
  4. Isabel 1822-1888 died aged 66
  5. Emily 1825-1839 died aged 14
  6. Alfred (Alfie) 1826-1853  died aged 27
  7. Lionel (Toby) 1828-1888 died aged 59

John Constable loved his children deeply and constantly worried about their health and education. Maria’s early death left John a lone parent to seven young children ranging from the ages of nought to eleven. Maria-Louisa “Minna”, the eldest daughter (aged nine) stepped into her mother’s shoes and along with nanny Mrs Roberts helped hold the family together. The two youngest boys (Alfie and Lionel) were too young to have any memory of their mother. The eldest (John-Charles) was sickly throughout his childhood and died of scarlet fever at the age of twenty four. Emily who was born prematurely, died of scarlet fever aged fourteen, Alfred died in a boating accident at the age of twenty seven, Lionel suffered a stroke (which he survived) at the age of twenty five and Charles-Golding (Charley), who was the only child to marry and have children, nearly broke his father’s heart by going to sea at the age of fourteen.