John, Charles, Alfred & Lionel

Portrait of John's son Lionel 1854

John Charles was a gentle character, his father describing him as having “winning ways…… for he never gives offence to a living creature. And that “in this sweet youth I see all that gentleness – affection – fine intellect and indeed all those endearing qualities which rendered his departed mother so dear to me”. (Memoirs and Life of John Constable by CR Leslie, 1845)


Constable hired a tutor for John and his younger brother Charley and the boys endured a mere two hours of lessons a day!  No wonder they loved their sixteen year old teacher Charles Boner and called him Old Bo. Constable regarded Boner as poetic, sensitive and serious – and he was cheap at a guinea a week!

When the ebullient Charley went to boarding school in Folkestone, John Constable was so pleased with the arrangement that he sent his frail, older son there too. Sadly, John injured himself sleepwalking and afterwards contracted rheumatic fever, from which he nearly died.

John was interested in science particularly in anatomy, geology, minerals and fossils. On recovering from rheumatic fever he started preparing for university, studying chemistry, anatomy and medicine in the day time with extra Latin lessons in the evening. In 1835 he was entered as a student at Corpus Christi College Cambridge although at this time he had not decided whether he wanted to be a clergyman or a doctor.

On his father's death

John was staying at John Constable’s studio in Charlotte Street, when his father suddenly collapsed and died in 1837. Asleep in an adjoining room, he heard his father call out in pain and suggested he call a doctor, but his father refused. John said his father gasped several times and then stopped breathing. John was so traumatised by his experience of his father's death that he could not attend the funeral.

Engagement and early death

After his father died, John suffered a breakdown and was looked after by Mr and Mrs Atkinson who lived in Surrey. He later became engaged to the Atkinson's daughter, Mary.

When John resumed his studies he crammed his rooms with his father’s paintings and sketches. Unfortunately his university studies took him into Cambridge hospital wards where he contracted scarlet fever and died in 1841, aged twenty four.

Charles Golding (Charley) - 1821-1879 (second son and third child)

Insect-lover longing for the sea

Charles was a rumbustious boy with good health and a short attention span. He was fascinated with insects and his only ambition was to go to sea. John Constable was horrified at the prospect of his son working on merchant ships but, rather like his own father before him, found himself paying to support his fourteen year old son’s single-minded ambition.


By the age of twelve, Charley was too disruptive a pupil for the home tutor Charles Boner, so reluctantly Constable sent him to a boarding school, chosen deliberately because it was by the sea in Folkestone. “He has never been treated with severity” Constable told the headmaster. Constable hated boarding schools due to the cruelty he experienced at the hands of the usher at Lavenham Grammar School.


In 1835 and at the age of only fourteen Charley prepared for his first voyage and Constable gently complained:

“ There is no end to his wants … the towsers, jackets,etc, by dozens, blue and white shirts by scores and a supply of rattlin for his hammock as he expects to be often cut down. Poor dear boy I try to joke about him but my heart is broken with parting with him” (Memoirs and Life of John Constable by CR Leslie, 1845)

As the day of Charley’s departure grew closer his father's heart grew heavier and he wrote:

“I wish Charley well at sea – for his own sake. He is an extraordinary boy and if his genius does not destroy him it will be the making of him – but my fear is more than my hope!”

Although his father could not bear to wave him off on that first voyage, Charley travelled to the East Indies and then to China. He became a captain with the Indian Marine (see image six above), conducted the first survey of the Persian Gulf and was made a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

When his father died, Charley argued with his sisters because they had kept some of his father’s seascapes which he felt were meant for him. He also denounced a number of genuine Constables as fakes.


Charley was the only Constable child to marry. In 1861 he married Caroline Susan Helder from Maida Vale. His aunt, Isabel Constable was a witness and he is listed in the marriage register as Commander in the Indian Navy. The couple's son, Charles William, was born on 10 May 1862 but he and Caroline did not survive the experience and they both died on that same day. Charley's second wife was Anna Maria Louisa Blundell. One of the witnesses was his sister Maria Louisa Constable and Charely was listed in the marriage register as a Captain in Her Majesty's Indian Navy. Maria was 20 years Charley's junior and bore him six children (Anna Maria, Clifford, Ella Nefeesh, Hugh Golding, Cyril Benson, Chalres Eustace, Sybil Amina. All but Sybil survived childhood and were John Constable’s only grandchildren. Hugh Golding Constable became a painter and fathered two children Arrahenua Ella and John.

Retirement and death

Charley retired from the navy in 1863 with the honorary rank of captain. He died in 1879 at the age of fifty eight.

John Constable's younger sons, Alfred and Lionel  were too young to remember their mother, Maria, who died a few months after giving birth to Lionel, her seventh child.

1826-1853 Alfred “Alfie” (third son and fifth child)

As a toddler, Alfie played under John Constable’s easel, creating mischief. Although he attended Hampstead School and learnt to play the violin, he was not interested in books. He was however interested in drawing and at the age of sixteen spent his summer with Mary, Constable’s favourite sister who lived in East Bergholt, where he enjoyed a summer of fishing and sketching below Fen Bridge.

Alfie considered going to sea, (like his brother Charlie) but instead decided to study art and enrolled at the Sass Academy, an elite institution which prepared (male) students for The Royal Academy and was located at 6 Charlotte Street, opposite the British Museum. Some of Alfie's landscapes were later exhibited at the Royal Academy .

Alfie died in 1853 in a boating accident (which his younger brother Lionel survived) on the River Thames. We have not discovered a sketch of Alfie with his name on it - but given John Constable has sketched all his children in 1831, it is thought that the untitled sketch (third image above) is most probably of Alfie.

Lionel Bicknell 1828-1887 (fourth son and seventh child)

Lionel was born in the year his mother Maria died and life was difficult for him from the start. Having no memory of his mother, his attachments were to his father, his sister Maria Louisa and his nanny Mrs Elizabeth Roberts.

He was educated at home by the family tutor, Charles Boner, before attending a Mrs Rawley's *Dame School. He completed his education at Alfie’s school in Hampstead and dallied with farming before deciding to study landscapes at Carry’s Academy in London. Lionel was the most artistically talented of all the Constable children and exhibited his work four times at the Royal Academy. Occasionally his work was mistaken for that of his father.

Lionel gave up painting after he and his brother Alfie were involved in a boating accident on the River Thames. Although the young men could swim, Alfie did not make it to shore in the freezing water and died. Lionel survived the accident but afterwards suffered a stroke.

For the rest of his life Lionel concentrated on carpentry, photography, sailing and making fireworks. He died in 1853, aged fifty.

*Dame Schools were the pre-cursers to Infant and Primary Schools. Run by women, the schools were usually the teacher’s home. Children were taught the alphabet, spelling, the New Testament and some household chores. The inadequacies of Dame schools in England were illustrated by a study conducted in 1838 by the Statistical Society of London which found nearly half of all pupils surveyed were only taught spelling, with a negligible number being taught mathematics and grammar. Dame schools became less common in Britain after the introduction of compulsory education in 1870, whereafter schools that were found to be below government-specified standards of tuition were closed.