Ann, Martha and Mary

John's sisters Ann and Mary Constable

Much less is known about John Constable's three sisters than his two brothers

Ann was the eldest child in the Constable family and eight years older than her brother John. She and her sister Martha either cosseted John or bossed him about and it has been said that their behaviour caused him to seek escape in the Suffolk countryside.

John felt little rapport with Ann who was boyish looking and devoted to her dogs and horses. However, he accepted the gift of a puppy (called Dash) from her kennels as a gift to cheer up his sweet-heart, Maria Bicknell when the prospect of the couple marrying seemed doomed. Ann sent the following directive as to the feeding of the pup “that he should be fed bread or barley meal well scalded with boiling water and a bit of fat mixed with it”.

When Golding Constable died in 1816, Ann was at her father’s bedside. She used her share of the proceeds from the sale of the family home to buy an old cottage in East Bergholt which she renovated. Initially she lived in it (rather uncomfortably) with her brother Golding until he moved to the Dysart Estate as live-in land warden.

Nicknamed Patty, Martha was seven years older than her famous brother and the only Constable sibling to marry.  Martha met Nathaniel Whalley (1765-1838) while on a visit to London. He was in business with his father Daniel, a cheesemonger and wholesaler operating out of 15 Aldgate High Street in London. Martha and Nathaniel married in 1794 and the couple had two children Daniel Constable Whalley and Alicia Whalley. They all lived at Nathaniel’s home in the Minories at Temple House, East Ham.

Nathaniel's business entailed sending and receiving packages (including cheeses, wines and spirits) and then transporting them across the country, including to Flatford, Dedham and East Bergholt. When sending goods to the Stour Valley, Nathaniel almost certainly used the navigation company owned by his father-in-law, Golding Constable, which operated between Sudbury and London (via Mistley).

In 1821 (the year Constable exhibited The Haywain) Nathaniel Whalley retired and brought his family to live in a house opposite Dedham Mill, handing over the reins of the London business to his nephew Robert.

Martha seems to have been an infectiously happy person, cheering the family up when she visited them and supporting her brother John with meals/company when his relationship with Maria Bicknell seemed to be doomed. She also arranged  visits to London for her mother Ann and, after her husband retired and the family moved to Dedham, she organised country visits for John Constable’s children who lived in London.

Martha died on 11 February 1843, aged 74 and she is buried in Dedham Churchyard.

Mary was John’s favourite sister and it was she who addressed him as ‘dearest John’ and who kept him company in his London lodgings when his relationship with Maria Bicknell appeared to be hopeless.

Mary was energetic and caring. She distributed blankets to the old and needy which, during the winter of 1834, her brother John had arranged to be sent to East Bergholt. In 1842 she had John’s sixteen year old son, Alfred ("Alfie") to stay who enjoyed a summer fishing and sketching below the Fen Bridge near Flatford.

When Golding Constable died in 1816:

  • the family mansion (East Bergholt House) and its contents were sold and Mary bought her three favourite cows, Cherry, Tibby and Feresty 
  • Mary and her brother Abram moved into the millers house at Flatford Mill

The move from East Bergholt House was humiliating in prospect and Mary and Abram were keen to ensure that the Flatford residence looked like the home of a local businessman – and not that of a humble miller. So they arranged for the construction of a formal Georgian porch outside the main entrance. Although the porch was constructed of wood, it was made in such a way that it mirrored the appearance of a formal Adam-style stone porch. It had a glass pyramid roof and seems incongrously grand in comparison with the rest of the mill building.

In 1836 (two years before John Constable's death) Mary bought land in East Bergholt jointly with her brother John, Mary agreeing to farm it and to pay rent to John for the part he owned.