Constable Country, that placid region of fields, woods and water on the Essex-Suffolk border, is the most familiar of all British artistic landscapes. Its inhabitants, however, the people who owned the land and shaped it, remain largely unknown. John Constable did, of course, paint them too. During his career he produced some 100 portraits, most of them of the solid bourgeoisie of his native district. But because he brought to portraiture neither the grandeur nor the originality that made him a great landscapist, their faces have slipped into the background. Now though, more than 50 have been gathered at the National Portrait Gallery for Constable Portraits: The Painter and his Circle - the first exhibition devoted to his pictures of people.
Constable was not a portraitist by choice. He was slow to win acclaim as a landscapist, becoming a Royal Academician only at the age of 52, and commissions were hard to come by throughout his life. Although he received an allowance from his corn merchant father, money was never plentiful and as a young man he needed funds not just for daily subsistence but also to win over the reluctant and socially superior relatives of his fiancée, Maria Bicknell. Since landscapes didn't pay, he was forced to use his local connections and paint portraits - what he dismissively termed mere "jobs" or "dead horses" - instead.
In 1812, he wrote to Maria that while his father was anxious to see him "engaged in Portrait...you know Landscape is my mistress - 'tis to her I look for fame". Perhaps this reluctance is why he was rarely more than an accomplished face painter. He was not helped either by the fact that while specialist "phiz mongers" trained in the workshops of established portraitists, Constable learned by copying portraits in the collection of the Dysart family, the local grandees. So it is perhaps no surprise that he never fully mastered some of the basics: his sitters often challenge the proportions of their pictorial space. Hands are uncomfortably disposed in the one full-length portrait - of Rear Admiral Western (1813) - legs and body make a clumsy join. For a painter who could effortlessly catch a fleeting change in the sky or of the sheen of leaves in the wind, the shifts of facial expression defeated him.