By the time of his death in 1837, aged 60, John Constable's reputation was wholly secure, but there can have been few painters of genius who had to wait so long to find their own distinctive voice. Of course, from the second half of the 19th century onwards there have been plenty of examples of artists who were not recognised in their own time, Van Gogh (the subject of a previous book by Martin Gayford) being only the most notorious, but in artistic as opposed to worldly terms his breakthrough came significantly sooner. Similarly, it is not hard to instance old masters - Vermeer and Georges de la Tour spring to mind - who have eventually come to be incomparably more highly rated by posterity than they were by their contemporaries.
In contrast to both these categories of artists, and for all the charm of his early productions, Constable was nudging 40 in 1816 when he painted his great Wivenhoe Park, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the tide began to turn for him. Now, finally, he felt able to marry his East Bergholt neighbour Maria Bicknell, for all that they had been courting and corresponding since 1809. It had been lack of money and prospects, combined with the perceived need to keep his future bride in an appropriate style, which had held Constable back. It is entirely characteristic of their milieu that Constable's mother, his great ally in all things but principally in his devoted pursuit of Maria, should have written to him in 1815 - the year before his marriage - in the following terms: "O, my dear John, pray keep out of debt, that earthly Tartarus!"
Martin Gayford has threaded references and allusions to the novels of Jane Austen and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony through his narrative, which sometimes seems more contrived than enlightening. For me, the obsession with money and meanness - in both senses - of provincial life brought Balzac to mind. In the event, all the fears and expectations surrounding the fortunes John and Maria hoped they might ultimately receive from his batty uncle or her gruesome grandfather came to very little. It is easy, with the wisdom of hindsight, to say they should not have bothered to take so much trouble to keep on the right side of everybody, but hardly surprising if they erred on the side of caution.