John Constable, always a household name, still stands shy of the international stage. Although he warrants this major new biography; he sits, with Stubbs, Turner, and Gainsborough, as a key element of the quadrumvirate of the British school of modern painting, one of the four early fathers of our national pictorial church.
Hamilton seeks here to unpick the over-worn view of Constable as the proto-French plein air Impressionist landscapist and furnishes an elegant portrait of the man, and of his times. He draws freely on surviving correspondence with his friend and patron, Bishop John Fisher, as well as on the reliably published biographical memoirs of the fellow painter CR Leslie which appeared only six years after Constable’s death.
The outcome is the first full-scale biography since the same memoir was edited by Jonathan Mayne in 1951, a daunting but rewarding task given the happy existence of at least 1,000 surviving letters both to and from the painter. Hamilton deftly depicts a mind that evolves out of the drab discipline of his early portraiture and the continuous copying of old masters and which to this day exhibits an intimacy, proximity and a close observation of subject matter that was so openly admired by the late Lucian Freud. Yet his most innovative contribution to thought lay in his ability to articulate his own meaning for landscape, to understand its potential moral force, and to expand the expressive power of painterly gesture. Largely untravelled, his was thus, in microcosm, a masterly aesthetic journey of the mind’s eye, as one “born to paint a happier land, my own dear England”.
Hamilton presents, however, not an intellectual rebel, but a man of staunch political rectitude, a painter profoundly thoughtful and attentive to his elders as a student painter, and also as a son to yeoman farming parents, who nevertheless would have had him as manager of the virtuously run, if economically unpredictable, East Bergholt-based family milling business. That he succeeded independently is proved by the fact that “Constable Country” was already a phrase used in his own lifetime; throughout his life he openly rated Nature higher than most of his contemporaries who stubbornly adhered to Reynolds’s maxim that it was inferior to the Ideal. Given the sources employed and the density of detail available to the author, the underlying hypothesis here is, nevertheless, ultimately one of perspective rather than of revelation. Constable, a provincial painter, with his rival Turner, emerges as one who was both a prophet in his own country, and equally appreciated in another.
That country was France, yet Constable had, it seems – unlike Stubbs who never exhibited abroad – no apparent need to speak French. He can now perhaps best be understood as an international painter, but in his own, stoutly English, pre-Brexit terms.
The book has no index. Instead it boasts the sophisticated highly keyed handling of a variegated interwoven cast of characters. There are 124 in all, and he traces their interactions and interconnectedness. The story is written in an often racy narrative and is made up of 47 short, dense and well-footnoted chapters, almost filmic in pace. One concerns John Cranch, the Devonian painter and aesthetic theorist. Another, the two patron-priests, Dr John Fisher of Salisbury and his nephew John, Archdeacon of Berkshire. We also encounter the prolix London diarist Joseph Farington, peppery éminence grise of the Academy, who facilitated Constable’s admittance to the Royal Academy in 1799 and thus made possible the key introduction to Sir George Beaumont, who bought a large Constable landscape in 1823.
Early friends, such as the draughtsman-author John Thomas Smith, are harder to quantify, but are all worthy of mention. And latterly, those such as Benjamin Robert Haydon “the cannonball-headed misanthrope” and George Field, the “brilliant colour chemist”, illuminate in vigorous terms Constable’s ambitious pursuit of both formative influences and career progression.
There were the inevitable and periodic headwinds, and it was almost 30 years after entry to the Royal Academy in 1799 before he became an actual Academician. The growing infirmity of his fragile wife, Maria Bicknell and her death in 1828 aged 40, quite changed him. Seeking to reconcile the force of art with the power of God and nature, Constable could so easily have been a high Churchman, but his calling has become understood as that of an emotional innovator. His career ascent culminates in an unlikely if fleeting popularity in France, successfully and in part orchestrated by the dealer-entrepreneur John Arrowsmith when, in 1824 the Hay Wain was exhibited to acclaim at the Paris Salon.
His fine Landscape:Noon, exhibited in late April 1821, was already the type of “six-footer” (his term) for whose particular “stasis” there was enduring hunger: “the stationary wagon, the still horses, the silent angler, the quiet woman, the observing dog”. The influence of his august predecessors Poussin, Leonardo, Dufresnoy, Richardson and, less so, Reynolds, effectively made this painter an “international”. Moreover, he was one who further, to quote Cranch,”knew no bias against familiar nature, life and manners which constitute as proper and as genuine a department of imitative art as the sublime and the beautiful”.
Maria Graham’s 1820 biography of Poussin is cited as a hinge point in Constable’s art, a clue to the emergence of style that quickly became manifest in both the famous Hay Wain of 1821 and the very “modern” sky studies of that moment.
Hamilton seeks to depict a painter who recognised in Poussin a landscape that was, to quote Constable: “Full of religious and moral feeling and shows how much of his own nature God has implanted in the mind of man.” At the Royal Academy in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, there was hanging a painting by Alfred, two by Lionel, and one piece by Isabel Constable to continue the family name. Constable lives still, in particular at the current and only show of late Constable work at the Royal Academy (until 13 February) in London. His own family thus stood at the dawn of a new school of English expression, he having been its first gatekeeper, of a school of landscape experience that combined, both surprisingly and revolutionarily, the unconscious emotions of both religion and antiquity. This was already partly recognised within his own lifetime, when he died as he had often painted, quite suddenly, in 1837 aged 60.
Anthony Mould is an art dealer.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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