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John Constable at Flatford

View of Bridge Cottage beside the River Stour at Flatford, Suffolk
View of Bridge Cottage beside the River Stour at Flatford | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Learn more about the life of John Constable and his family. Stories of a happy childhood, heartbreak and success in the art world help to paint a picture of what his life was like.

Constable's childhood

John Constable was born on 11 June 1776, into a wealthy, close-knit family who provided him with love and support. John once described his early life with his two brothers Golding and Abram and three sisters, Ann, Martha and Mary as his ‘careless boyhood’.

John’s father, Golding Constable, was a Suffolk businessman who profited from the agricultural boom under way during his lifetime. Assuming John would take over the family firm, he did not take his son’s aspirations to become an artist seriously. However, despite deep misgivings, Golding eventually agreed to fund John’s artistic studies at the Royal Academy and he continued to provide this financial support until Constable was nearly 40.

John’s mother, Ann Constable, the daughter of a London barrel manufacturer was more supportive of John’s artistic ambitions than her husband. However, she did not believe he could make a living out of painting landscapes and persuaded him to paint portraits, which he did – around 100 still exist today.

Constable at school

Constable was not a good scholar. He was described by Dr Grimwood, the headmaster at Dedham Grammar School, as knowing 'little Latin and less literature'. At the age of seven John became a weekly boarder at Ford Street School near Colchester.

At the age of 11 John became a full boarder at Lavenham Grammar School where he received unwarranted beatings, so his parents moved him to the Royal Grammar School in nearby Dedham.

The Royal Grammar School in Dedham was kind to John and encouraged his interest in calligraphy and in drawing. The daily walk between his home in East Bergholt and Dedham School instilled in him a deep knowledge of and love for the Suffolk countryside which was to inspire his art and become the hallmark of his paintings in later in life.

The beginnings of his career

John’s mother introduced him to Sir George Beaumont, an amateur artist and art collector, whose mother lived in nearby Dedham. Lord Beaumont was an influential figure and possibly eased Constable’s student entry into the Royal Academy. When the 19-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.

Constable timeline

1799

The Royal Academy

At the age of 23, John was considerably older than most art students – for example, his contemporary (and arch-rival) JMW Turner began his studies at the age of 13. 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 artworks as the Summer Exhibition today 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 and reactions to the natural world rather than following the strict, classical teachings of the Royal Academy. To capture his response to reality as honestly as possible, he chose to paint the part of the world he knew and loved best: the Stour Valley in Suffolk. 

Video
Video

John Constable's Hay Wain

John Constable completed his painting of The Hay Wain in 1821, which depicts a rural scene on the River Stour. Today, the National Trust manages the landscape at Flatford that inspired this now famous view. We caught up with our Assistant Curator, Alice, to talk about what has become one of the most celebrated landscape paintings.

John Constable's parents

1739–1816

His father, Golding Constable

Golding Constable was an entrepreneur who inherited Flatford Mill and the flour-milling business in 1764 from his uncle Abram Constable (who died childless). He also operated Dedham Mill, owned the windmill at East Bergholt, as well as 93 acres of agricultural land in East Bergholt which he farmed. 

Golding's marriage to the daughter of a barrel maker, Ann Watts, in 1767 resulted in a substantial dowry and six children: Ann, Martha, Golding, John, Mary and Abram. Business success enabled him to build a mansion of three floors with stables and a courtyard and in 1774 to move his family into it. He called it East Bergholt House.  

When Golding Constable died (on 14 May 1816) aged 77, he had drawn up a legal agreement to protect his children which meant that all six of his children were given equal shares in his assets. 

The youngest son, Abram, took over the running of the family business on behalf of all six brothers and sisters and not just for himself – his work provided each of Golding’s children with an annual income of about £200. Golding Constable was buried alongside his wife in East Bergholt Churchyard. He did not live to see his son’s success and fame. 

Constable's wife

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.

John and Maria married in London in 1816 in the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. 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.

Following the seven-year secret courtship and 12 years of marriage, to John Constable (1816–1828), Maria was continually pregnant. She gave birth to seven children and had one miscarriage, all of which put an enormous strain on her health. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 41 a few months after giving birth to her seventh child.

John Constable loved his children deeply and constantly worried about their health and education. Maria’s early death left John a single parent to seven young children.

Constable's children

1817–1841

John Charles

The eldest of Constable’s children, John was sickly throughout his childhood and died of scarlet fever at the age of 24.

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