John Constable's Study of Tree Trunks

A vivid but oddly unresolved picture

This biography of Constable is but a partial portrait

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Constable’s character has always presented a problem to his biographers. On the one hand we know he was kind, compassionate, sensitive and loving, yet we also know he could be spiteful, sarcastic, bitter and rude. The problem has been to bring these two sides of his character together to give a sense of a whole personality. 

It is not an easy job. James Hamilton’s approach is different; he doesn’t try to explain the diverse faces of Constable: he shows them to his readers and lets us make up our own minds. Instead of trying to excavate a nugget of pure Constable, he goes in the opposite direction and shows us the world in which he lived and moved, which he brings to life in all its detail and particularity. 

Constable was no hermit, although he sometimes wished he was

Hamilton has ferreted out the names of many of the people who worked for the artist’s father, Golding: James Revans, the clerk; Zachariah Savell, the mate of his ship the Telegraph, who was press-ganged in London; Joseph King; Joe Cook. He also names the servants who worked for John and his family. Some, such as Elizabeth Roberts were practically part of the family; others came and went, including Sarah the maid, Ellen, her replacement, and Mary the pantry-maid, who was married to Ellen’s cousin. There were also tradesmen in and out of the house: Kennedy the handyman and Ambrose Wright the upholsterer. Others are just names: Hannah Heeble, Mrs Jones, Mrs Port. 

Constable: A Portrait, James Hamilton (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

Each of these names is a small detail, but taken together they begin to produce a different picture of Constable from the one we are used to. In place of the lone artist struggling single-handedly against the establishment and the high priests of taste, we find a small army whose labour supported Constable and enabled him to dedicate himself to landscape painting. Constable was no hermit, although he sometimes wished he was. Friendship and company, and probably rivalry, too, were essential to his way of life. 

This richly-realised world is mostly benign. While Hamilton does not hide Constable’s protracted struggle to establish himself as a significant artist, he stresses the amount of support he enjoyed. Sir George Beaumont, who was introduced to the aspiring painter in the 1790s, is presented as an ally, although he never bought a picture from him. Similarly, Hamilton emphasises the good advice that Joseph Farrington gave Constable over the years, though the artist knew that his support had limits: during those years when he repeatedly applied (and failed) to become an Associate of the Royal Academy, Farrington regularly voted for other candidates. 

All the great artists that Constable met at the Royal Academy seemed to recognise talent in the young artist, although as Hamilton admits, nothing that Constable exhibited in the first ten years or so of his professional life was at all out of the ordinary. Hamilton even enlists Wordsworth as a sympathetic and comradely spirit. The two met and, although Constable read and admired Wordsworth’s poetry, the evidence that the two men liked one another is pretty scant. 

After Constable’s death, Wordsworth did contribute to the fund to buy The Cornfield for the National Gallery, but he only offered one guinea, not a mark of particular esteem. The general bonhomie of this world is sometimes difficult to square with Constable’s remarks. Look, for instance, at how Hamilton handles the origins of the phrase “Constable Country”. This is how he presents it:

Constable: “Is this not beautiful?”
Fellow traveller: “Yes sir, this is Constable’s Country.”
Constable: “I am John Constable.”

Compare this with Constable’s own account in a letter to David Lucas in 1832:

In the coach yesterday coming from Suffolk, were two gentlemen and myself, all strangers to each other. In passing through the valley about Dedham, one of them remarked to me, on my saying it was beautifull — “Yes Sir — this is Constable’s country!” I then told him who I was lest he should spoil it.

The mordant humour in that final comment darkens and troubles Hamilton’s good-natured and polite conversation.

Although no biography would have been written had Constable not painted what he did, the paintings are not the centre of this study’s attention, they are there primarily to shed light on the development of Constable’s character, but as Hamilton’s approach is to present the facts and let the reader decide, the light that falls is uncertain. He is a deft summariser and his descriptions of the paintings are vivid, as when he points out “the surprised exclamation of poplars against the sky” or describes the chain pier at Brighton as a “delicate cobweb”.

His imagery helps the reader to visualise the painting and at the same time tells us something about its significance. He often uses a painting to take the reader to the moment of its creation, showing us Constable sitting on a barrel or a post on the windy beach at Brighton seized by the sight of a storm a mile or so out to sea and working rapidly without preconceptions to get the view down on paper before the rain makes landfall. 

The weather and the paint come together so that the downpour is the paint that describes it. Hamilton finding the finished oil sketch optimistic is of a piece with his generally sunny view of Constable’s world.

Hamilton’s portrait by contrast, remains oddly elusive

His writing is less persuasive when it moves from evocation to explanation. He devotes a chapter to the making of The Hay Wain, and his imagining of the world that it depicts is detailed and exact. His writing makes the relationship of parts in the picture an aspect of the relationship of social, economic and meteorological phenomena in the world it portrays. 

In this sense, Hamilton sees it as a full statement of Constable’s vision of landscape painting. Explaining what might have led Constable to this conception, Hamilton turns to Poussin and to a biography of him by Maria Graham published in 1820. He argues that the biography played a vital role in Constable’s understanding of the moral value of landscape. But the letter to John Fisher in which Constable says he has recently read Graham’s book was written a good six months after the painting was finished and exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Constable was also an accomplished portrait painter, though he often complained that it kept him from landscape. His best portraits are not exactly psychological, but they are extraordinarily frank: the bodies are solid and the conditions of their lives, marked in their flesh, are recorded without flattery. It is this that gives them a sense of bodily presence; something has been seen. 

Hamilton’s portrait by contrast, remains oddly elusive; it contains fascinating details and all kinds of insight, but his decision to leave the nature of Constable’s character unresolved means that all these good things orbit around an absence. Where is Constable in all this? The sun slips behind a cloud and he vanishes among the shadows of the trees.

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