John Constable: Youth - Middle Age

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On leaving Dedham Grammar School, John Constable spent seven years working in his father’s offices and mills.

John's main job was keeping his father's East Bergholt windmill which entailed him in close observtion of skies in order to predict the wind conditions - and hence trim the sails appropriately. This discipline proved invaluable to him when he came to paint the skies in his Suffolk paintings and for which he became famous in adult life.

John’s mother, Ann was well aware of her son's ambitions as an artist and introduced him to Sir George Beaumont*, an amateur artist and art collector, whose mother lived in nearby Dedham. When the nineteen year old John Constable showed Beaumont some of his pen and ink sketches, Beaumont showed Constable a small picture called Hagar and the Angel an Italianate landscape with a bright sky, painted in 1646 by Claude Lorraine. Seeing this painting had a lifelong effect on Constable’s development as a painter of landscapes.

*Lord Beaumont was an influential figure and possibly eased Constable’s student entry into the Royal Academy.

1799 - Royal Academy 

John’s father only agreed to pay for John’s studies at the Royal Academy of Art because John’s younger brother Abram Constable agreed to take over the running of the business on behalf of the family.

At the age of twenty three, John was considerably older than most art students – for example his contemporary (and arch-rival) JMW Turner began his studies at the age of thirteen. At this time, the Royal Academy was based at Somerset House and provided training in drawing rather than the full range of artistic forms that we associate with it now. Major exhibitions were held every year, every bit as crammed with art-works as the Summer Exhibition today (see 4th image above) and both Turner and Constable exhibited work there most years in the hope of becoming better known as there were so few public art galleries at this time..

While studying at the Royal Academy, John realised that his destiny was to paint a ‘truth’ about life based on his own feelings/reactions to the natural world rather than following the strict, classical dictacts of the Royal Academy. So he could capture his response to reality as honestly as possible, he chose to paint the part of the world he knew and loved the best - the Stour Valley in Suffolk.
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“I should paint my own places best – painting is but another word for feeling ………still Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from where all originally must spring – and should an artist continue his practice without referring to nature he must soon form a ‘manner’ and be reduced ….. for these two years past I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth second hand, in other people’s art……… Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims on posterity...” (letter written by John Constable in 1802 to his childhood friend, John Dunthorne)

While John Constable was a diligent and conscientious college student, he was also homesick. His loving family sent him letters and baskets of food (via the family barge transport and via stage-coach) and kept him in touch with the news in his home village of East Bergholt. Constable enjoyed a more privileged life than some of his contemporaries because he received financial support from his affluent parents and was not so dependent on selling his work as they were. As a student and young artist, he enjoyed a wide social circle in London, largely funded by his family and not the sale of his art works - Rev John Fisher of Bishop of Salisbury Cathedral and the actor David Garrick were amongst his friends. John Fisher had initially been Rector of Langham Church in Essex - which, being close to East Bergholt, is where Constable met him. He encouraged the young Constable and bought some of his early paintings. Fisher's nephew, Rev John Fisher became Constable's closest friend. He was eventually made Archdeacon of Salisbury Cathedral.

  • 1801 - completes his first commission Old Hall East Bergholt for its owner
  • 1802 - rents his first studio (for four and a half old pennies a year), called Moss Cottage in East Bergholt (see second image above - white building) where he worked undisturbedwith John Dunthorne(senior) - note the proximity of John Dunthorne's house which is to the left in the distance in this photograph
  • 1802 - exhibits his first painting at the Royal Academy called Dedham Vale
  • 1805 - receives commission for an altarpiece at Brantham Church, a painting called Christ Blessing the Children for which his brother, Golding modelled for the face of Christ
  • 1809 - falls in love with a wealthy solicitor's daughter, Maria Bicknell, but sells so few of his paintings, he cannot not afford to marry her
  • 1814 - paints Boat Building (see fifth image above)

In 1816, John Constable's father died and his younger brother Abram agreed to run the family business for the benefit of the whole family. The bulk of Golding Constable's estate was sold and John's inheritance meant he could afford to marry his sweet-heart, Maria Bicknell and provide her with comfortable accommodation in Hampstead, including a staff of servants.

  • 1816 - marries Maria Bicknell
  • 1819 - exhibits the first of his six-footers at the Royal Academy - called The White Horse - and sells it - and becomes an Associate Member of the Royal Academy
  • 1821 - exhibits The Haywain (see 6th image above) at the Royal Academy which remains unsold
  • 1824 - is awarded King Charles X Gold Medal for Art in Paris for The Haywain
  • 1824 - takes on John Dunthorne (junior) as his assistant in his London studio
  • 1829 - is devastated by the death of his wife Maria, from tuburculosis a few months after the birth of her seventh child (Lionel Bicknell Constable)

After Maria's death, John Constable was heart-broken, bereft of his muse and love of his life.  He kept on working, painting in several places including London, Salisbury and Petworth. His work became more popular and started to sell, which was just as well as he had seven children to provide for and educate.