Faces that Don’t Quite Fit

When it came to painting portraits, Constable struggled to emulate his mastery of landscape

Michael Prodger

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.

Because Constable sensed he was not a natural portraitist he remained an unadventurous one. As portraits increase in size they also increase in difficulty: the majority of his portraits were painted in the smaller established formats, three-quarters (head and shoulders) or Kit-Cat (head and shoulders with hands). These unshowy sizes suited his sitters too. As the magpie of gossip Joseph Farington noted in 1804, Constable charged two and three guineas and “this low price affords the farmers &c to indulge their wishes and to have their Children and relatives painted”.

This is nevertheless a fascinating exhibition because it gives an opportunity to see a significant painter confronting his limitations. And Constable could, at times, surpass himself – especially when the sitter was someone close to him. The exhibition includes several pictures of his wife and children that are marked by a rare sweetness and informality. The small head of his wife, painted in 1816, shortly before their marriage, shows something of the depth of the bond they had formed during their troubled courtship. Painted with the flickering bush strokes he usually reserved for nature, Maria exudes serenity and a moist-eyed softness. Constable took the picture with him when he went away and placed it next to his bed so that it was the last thing he saw at night and the first thing he saw in the morning. With this portrait he forgot to be constrained and lived up to his dictum that “painting is but another word for feeling”.

At the British Museum, the third of its exemplary exhibitions exploring the patronage of great world leaders has just opened. After the First Emperor and Hadrian it is now the turn of Shah ‘Abbas, ruler of Iran from 1587 to 1629. This series has so far proved a minor revelation, showing that there is an appetite for old-fashioned didacticism when it is proffered by scholarly and imaginative curating.

Shah ‘Abbas, a man “equally at home on the dervish’s mat and the royal throne”, took over a realm squeezed on the one side by the Ottomans and on the other by the Uzbeks. Iran was then militarily and bureaucratically weak and religiously uncertain. It was ‘Abbas who, not without cruelty (he had two of his sons blinded and a third killed), stabilised Iran’s borders, cemented Shia Islam as the state religion and used the arts as a key part of his plan for national regeneration.

There were sound practical reasons for his patronage. In 1598, he founded a new capital at Isfahan and its great buildings – particularly the palace-mosque-maidan complex at its heart – needed vast amounts of tilework, gilt and other decoration to glorify it. His attempts at unifying Shia involved the giving of rich gifts (waqf) to major religious centres (ceramics, manuscripts and calligraphy). And Iranian silk in its various forms-from carpets to clerical robes-was a vital trading commodity with both West and East. Examples of all these are on display and are a reminder of how Shah ‘Abbas made his country a major fixture on the world stage – a status that still resonates, though sometimes sinisterly, in modern Iran.

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