Maria Bicknell was born into a wealthy family - her father Charles was a London lawyer who fathered seven children by two wives.
Charles Bicknell was solicitor to the Prince Regent and the admiralty. He hoped Maria would inherit a substantial sum of money from her grandfather, Rev. Dr Durrand Rhudde.
Rev. Dr Durrand Rhudde was Maria’s wealthy grandfather who had once been one of 36 "Chaplains-in-Ordinary" an advisory body which reported to the Chaplain who had direct access to King George III, but went one to become rector of East Bergholt Church. He had inherited all his money from his sister who married a rich man, died childless and left everything to him and his daughter (Maria’s mother).
Maria Elizabeth Bicknell was Maria’s mother and Charles Bicknell’s second wife, she gave birth to five children, (Maria being the eldest) and died in May 1815.
Maria met John Constable while visiting her grandfather in East Bergholt, she was twelve and John Constable was in his early twenties. When Maria was in her twenties, the pair met again, fell in love and wanted to marry but were thwarted by Maria’s grandfather, who threatened to disinherit Maria if she went ahead and married John.
At the time (1809) John Constable was a struggling artist, living on only £100 a year (an allowance from his parents) plus a little money earned from selling portraits. This was not enough money to support himself, never mind a wife and children. The couple were forbidden to see each other because Maria's father, Charles Bicknell, obeyed Rev. Dr Rhudde's edict for fear his children would be disinerited. For seven years John and Maria were forced to meet in secret. The strain of the separation caused them both to become stressed and depressed and this adversely affected John’s ability to paint.
In 1816 John Constable’s father died and his will provided equally and generously for all of his six children. The income generated from the family business was managed by brother Abram for the benefit of the whole family. This income together with a share in the proceeds from the sale of Golding Constable’s land and family mansion, meant John suddenly had sufficient income to keep a wife and any children who came along.
John and Maria married in London in 1816 in the Church of St Martin in the Fields in London. None of the Bicknell nor Constable families attended. Maria was immediately disinherited by her grandfather but her father softened and gave his daughter an allowance of £50 per year. On his death in 1819, Rev. Dr Rhudde left all his grandchildren, including Maria, £4,000 each.
Maria’s health was fragile – the Bicknell family were prone to life threatening illness - two of Maria’s brothers died of tuberculosis, aged 19 and 24, the disease that eventually killed Maria too.
During 12 years of marriage (1816-1828), Maria was continually pregnant, giving birth to seven children (plus one miscarriage) which put an enormous strain on her health. By 1824, Maria had given birth to four children, John-Charles, Maria-Louisa (Minna), Charles-Golding (Charley) and Isabel and Mrs Roberts had been appointed as full time nanny and governess.
Although suffering from tuberculosis, Maria gave birth to three more children, Emily (born prematurely), Alfie (born prematurely) and Lionel-Bicknell before dying a few months later. The last three pregnancies and births left Maria in a ‘sad and weak condition’ (John Constable) and she had difficulty in feeding the babies.
Maria’s last months
After the birth of Lionel-Bicknell, Maria did not recover her strength. Constable was distraught and could concentrate on nothing but his wife’s illness.
“Although Constable appeared in his usual spirits in her presence, yet before I left the house, he took me into another room, wrung my hand, and burst into tears, without speaking”. (letter written in 1828 by friend and biographer, Charles Leslie)
“I am intensely distressed and can hardly attend to anything.” (letter written by John Constable in 1828 to a client dissatisfied with part of his work).
January (2nd) 1828 Maria’s seventh child, Lionel Bicknell was born
March 1828 Maria’s father died leaving her £20,000 which put an end to the Constable’s money worries
April 1828, Maria’s tubercular coughing became very much worse and Alfie (her sixth child) contracted whooping cough
May 1828 – John sent Maria and the children (including Alfie) to Brighton for the air but after six weeks with no improvement to their health, the family returned to London
November (23rd) 1828 Maria died at the age of 41
The final stages of consumption (known as tuberculosis today) were painful – vomiting, bleeding, fever and lassitude with Maria’s speech becoming no more than a whisper.
After Maria’s death, Constable wrote to his brother Golding,
"Hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel - God only knows how my children will be brought up... the face of the World is totally changed to me."