John Constable: Later Years

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John Constable was travelling from Suffolk back to London in a horse-drawn coach when he first heard Dedham Vale described as 'Constable's Country'. 

Constable had been attending the funeral of his assistant Johnny Dunthorne in East Bergholt. In a letter to his engraver, David Lucas, dated 14 November 1832, Constable says:

'In the coach yesterday coming from Suffolk, were two gentleman and myself all strangers to each other. In passing through the valley about Dedham, one of them remarked to me - on my saying it was beautiful - "yes sir - this is Constable's Country!" I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it'

(John Constable's letter is reproduced in: R B Beckett's John Constable's Correspondence - Patrons, Dealers and Fellow Artists. Publisher: Suffolk Records Society, 1966).

Salisbury Cathedral

Constable's best known work from his later period is a six-footer called Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows , featuring an impressive rainbow over Salisbury Cathedral. He exhibited the painting in 1831 but continued to work on it during 1833 and 1834. Salisbury was an important place for John Constable. It was the home of Bishop John Fisher  who had commissioned the Salisbury Cathedral painting. It was also the home of the bishop's nephew Archdeacon John Fisher, Constable's trusted friend and confidante.

Other enterprises included

  • working closely with the engraver, David Lucas on a series of mezzotints featuring some of his most famous Suffolk works. He was very disappointed with the experience - he sold less than 100 copies of his book of prints.
  • many drawings and sketches, some of which are highly finished, including those called Petworth Church and Windmill and Petworth Park following a visit to Sussex in 1834.  You can see these paintings by clicking onto this BBC site called Constable at Petworth.

Recognition by the Royal Academy

Constable never regained the freshness and inspiration of his Suffolk landscapes after the death of his wife Maria. He was finally admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, 26 years after his rival JMW Turner, and in the year Maria died. He was aged 52 - neither his wife or parents had lived long enough to see this public recognition.

Rivalry with Turner

Turner and Constable remained rivals to the end. Their fiesty relationship was famously illustrated by an incident in 1832 when both men were exhibiting pictures next to each other at the Royal Academy. Constable was finishing *The Opening of Waterloo Bridge while Turner was finishing a rather grey seascape called Helvoetsluys. Turner watched as Constable added rich, red colours to the flags and barges on his canvas. He then went up to his own picture and placed a daub of bright red, about the size of a 5p coin, in his grey sea and then left the gallery without saying a word.

C.R. Leslie, Constable’s biographer, and contemporary recounted “The intensity of the red lead, made more vivid by the coolness of his picture, caused even the vermilion and lake of Constable to look weak”. (extract from Autobiographical Recollections of the late Charles Robert Leslie R.A. edited by Tom Taylor, 1860)

John Constable's Health

Constable was always prone to neuralgia, depression, moodiness and anxiety brought on by slow progress as an artist, money worries and the poor health of his wife and children. In addition he suffered from severe rheumatism and in 1833 his heart had been weakened by an attack of rheumatic fever. Although Constable loved his children, the strain of supporting seven of them into adulthood took a toll on his artistic output and on his health.

Final Hours

Constable turned 60 on 11 June 1836. His children were doing well - his older son John Charles had passed his chemistry exam and his sailor son, Charley had returned on shore leave and departed on another voyage.  Emily, Alfred and Lionel were living with Nanny Roberts in the Constable home in Hampstead.

On 31 March 1837, Constable returned to his Charlotte Street studio (Tottenham Court Road) from a charity engagement for the Artists General Benevolent Institution. Having rented out most of the upstairs of his studio in order to fund the cost of the family home in Hampstead, he decided to sleep in the attic. His oldest son, John Charles Constable, was also staying with him at his studio that night.

"Young John had been at the theatre and when he got home and went to bed, he heard his father call out. Constable was in great pain and felt giddy.  His son suggested  a doctor be called but Constable said no. He agreed to take some rhubarb and magnesia; this made him feel sick. He then drank some warn water which made him vomit. The pain got worse and Constable asked John to get hold of their neighbour Mr Michelle, a medical man.  He moved from his bed for a while to an upright chair and then back to bed where he lay on his side. By the time Mr Michelle arrived Constable seemed to have fallen asleep, so his son thought, although in fact he had lost consciousness. Michelle said some brandy was needed as a stimulant. The maid ran downstairs to get some but she was too late.  Young John Charles heard Constable gasp several times and then nothing - he stopped breathing. His hands became cold. Half an hour after the onset of pain, he was dead." Extract from John Constable, A Kingdom Of His Own by Anthony Bailey

John Constable died on 31 March 1837 just two months short of his sixty first birthday. He was buried alongside his wife Maria, in St John’s Church, in Hampstead (see image three above). His brothers, Golding and Abram led the mourners. John Charles, Constable's eldest son who had been with his father when he died, was too ill and upset to attend.

After John Constable's death

On the death of their father, the surviving Constable children were left financially comfortable because they inherited:

  • John Constable's artworks (some of which were auctioned)
  • £500 in the Constable bank account
  • £12,000 in annuities that Maria’s father’s legacy had purchased for the benefit of Maria and her children
  • £4,000 that Abram Constable, owed his brother, John
  • over £1000 owed by others
  • a bequest from Golding, John Constable’s brother, who died a year after John

However, they argued over the pictures left to them by their father. Charley felt his sisters, Minna (Maria-Louisa) and Isabel, had divided their father’s shipping pictures between them and that those particular pictures should have come to him. They in turn thought he had taken advantage of them.

 * There are two versions of The Opening of Waterloo Bridge - one can be found in Anglesea Abbey (see first image above) and the other, which is referred to in the spat with Turner described above, is in the Tate Gallery in London and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1832.