In Focus: How Constable moved from peaceful and bucolic to radical and expressive

Thanks to vast canvases such as The Hay Wain, we might think we already know John Constable’s inimitable style. However, in later life, his work — now on show at the Royal Academy — took on a new dimension, says Peyton Skipwith.

Asked to name three quintessentially English artists of the 18th or 19th century off the top of their heads, most people today would nominate Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, in no particular order. However, it wasn’t always thus. Gainsborough and Turner enjoyed considerable success during their lives, but Constable, dedicated as he was to Nature, faced an uphill struggle; it wasn’t until 1824, when The Hay Wain and View on the Stour were shown at the Paris Salon, that he began to attract popular acclaim.

His friend John Fisher wrote at the time: ‘It makes me smile to myself when I think of plain English John Constable, who does not know a word of their language being the talk and the admiration of the French!’

Constable — whose later works are currently being celebrated in an exhibition named ‘Late Constable’ at the Royal Academy of Arts until February 13 — was the most archetypal English artist. He was a Suffolk man, born and bred, and his horizons remained insular, bounded by Leicestershire to the north, where he stayed with the collector Sir George Beaumont, bar a trip to the Lake District; Brighton to the south, where he repaired for longish spells for the health of his wife, Maria, and their children; and Wessex to the west, drawn by the friendship and patronage of Archdeacon John Fisher, rector of Osmington, and his uncle, the Bishop of Salisbury.

For much of his professional life, he lived in London. In 1822, on the death of Joseph Farington, he took over his house and studio at 35, Charlotte Street and in Hampstead, initially taking lodgings in South Terrace — again for his wife’s health — before purchasing 40, Well Walk, which was to remain his home for the rest of his life.

John Constable’s The Hay Wain. Credit: Alamy

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We know a lot about Constable’s life and movements thanks to the survival of his correspondence with Fisher, as well as the biography written by his friend and fellow painter C. R. Leslie. In the exchange of letters with Fisher, we hear his authentic voice when he writes of ‘Londoners [who] with all their ingenuity as artists know nothing of the feeling of country life — any more than a hackney coach horse knows of pasture’. Or his cri de coeur: ‘Am I doomed never to see the living scenes — which inspired the landscape of Wilson and Claude Lorrain?’

A rhetorical question, indeed, as he continued: ‘No! but I was born to paint a happier land, my own dear England!’

Throughout his life, Constable rated Nature more highly than most of his contemporaries, who stubbornly adhered to the popular belief that it was inferior to the ‘ideal’. Today, it is hard to believe that, in terms of technique and subject matter, he was regarded as something of an outsider — it was in France that his subversive message of truth to Nature first took root.

Constable was born in 1776 at East Bergholt, Suffolk, a prosperous market town on the River Stour. His father, a yeoman farmer, who had inherited property from an uncle at East Bergholt, plus the tenancy of Flatford Mill and other businesses, hoped that his son would gradually take over the responsibility of running them. However, young John was determined to become an artist, leaving milling to his father and younger brother, Abram.

Hadleigh Castle, 1829 (oil on canvas) by Constable. Credit: Bridgeman

Unlike Dedham, on the Essex side of the Stour, East Bergholt and its environs attracted a number of well-connected visitors, several of whom, through introductions and patronage, were able to further Constable’s career, most particularly Dr John Fisher, rector of Langham and later Bishop of Salisbury. It was his nephew, Archdeacon Fisher, who became Constable’s closest friend and confidant, a friendship that the latter described as ‘at once the pride — the honour — and grand stimulus of my life’.

In 1799, when Constable moved to London, Dr Fisher gave him a letter of introduction to the painter Joseph Farington, facilitating his admittance to the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer. He quickly progressed from plaster casts to the Life School where, in addition to drawing from the nude, copying the work of the Old Masters was an essential part of the curriculum. This was an activity that he continued throughout his life, bringing him into contact with such renowned collectors as Beaumont. In 1823, Beaumont invited him to stay at Coleorton Hall, Leicestershire, where, in addition to copying several works by Claude owned by his host, he drew the cenotaph that the Beaumonts had erected in Reynolds’s memory.

Ten years later, this drawing was to supply the subject matter and detail for his great late painting, Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, now in the collection of the National Gallery, London WC2, which provides the finale to the Royal Academy’s ‘Late Constable’ show.

Although Constable was out of step with regard to the artistic taste of many of his contemporaries, both connoisseurs and collectors, he continued to benefit from his early Suffolk contacts through introductions and portrait commissions, which provided a vital source of income throughout his life. His artistic practice, particularly portraiture, obliged him to live mainly in London, although he remained a countryman at heart, delighting, as he told Fisher, in the feel of the wind blowing in his face as he attempted to capture the ‘grander and more evanescent effects of Nature’. Such effects were, to him, the ultimate goal, greater than any ‘ideal’.

Trees and stretch of water on the Stour (brown wash) by John Constable. Credit: V&A/Bridgeman

Although this obsession did not interfere with friendships, it undoubtedly retarded his professional advancement; it took 30 years from the time he entered the Royal Academy Schools for him to be elected a Royal Aca-demician. During this period, Fisher — who, in 1812, had recently acquired one of his landscapes — wrote that: ‘Your painting has been much criticized — disliked by bad judges gaped at by no judges & admired (which is all that is valuable) by good ones.’ Although the landscape in question has not been identified, given the date, it would almost certainly have been painted at the time Constable was beginning to move away from the seductively smooth surface of works such as The Valley of the Stour (1805) to his later, more tactile handling of paint, as in Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden (1815).

Constable never lost his love of painting and drawing directly from Nature and, in 1819, writing again to Fisher, who had just bought The White Horse — the first of his ‘six-footers’ (his term) — he said he was ‘determined to finish a small picture on the spot, for every large one I intend to paint’. The sequence of large canvases grew to include several of his best known and most admired works: The Hay Wain (1821), The Leaping Horse (1825) and Hadleigh Castle (1829) among them.

For him, the matière — the physicality of paint — now became as important as the subject itself; his handling got broader and his credo of ‘truth to Nature’ gradually morphed into ‘truth to painting’. No longer working directly from Nature, these large works were often preceded by full-scale studies, although it is thought, in some cases, he may have worked simultaneously on both study and the final work. In retrospect, it is no surprise that it was one of these, The Hay Wain, that so excited his French confrères and gained him his Gold Medal at the Paris Salon in 1824.

‘Late Constable’ is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, until February 13 —

The White Horse by John Constable (1776-1837), oil on canvas, 1819. Credit: Alamy

The life and times of John Constable

June 11, 1776 Born at East Bergholt, Suffolk, the second son of Golding Constable and his wife, Ann, née Watts

1799 Moves to London and enters the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer

February 19, 1800 Admitted to the Life School of the Royal Academy (RA)

1802 First exhibit at the RA

1807 Dr Fisher is appointed Bishop of Salisbury

Autumn 1811 Constable makes first visit to Salisbury and is introduced by the Bishop to his nephew, Archdeacon John Fisher, rector of Osmington, Dorset

October 2, 1816 Marries Maria Bicknell

1819 Exhibits his first ‘six-footer’, The White Horse, at the RA; elected associate of the RA and takes lodgings in Hampstead

1821 The Hay Wain, originally titled Landscape–Noon, is exhibited at the RA

1822 Acquires lease of 35, Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia, London

Autumn 1823 Stays for six weeks at Coleorton Hall in Leicestershire with Sir George Beaumont

1824 The Hay Wain exhibited at the Paris Salon. Awarded Gold Medal

1827 Death of Sir George Beaumont. Constable purchases house in Well Walk, Hampstead

November 23, 1828 Maria Constable dies

1829 Elected Royal Academician

August 25, 1832 Archdeacon Fisher dies in Boulogne

March 31, 1837 John Constable dies at home during the night — he is buried alongside his wife in the graveyard of the Parish Church of St-John-at-Hampstead