Lovelorn Landscape

Constable in Love: Love, Landscape, Money and the Making of a Great Painter by Martin Gayford

Art Books History

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.

Whether by chance, or in consequence of all his matrimonial prayers having finally been answered, once Constable and Maria were happily united – and began to be surrounded by one of those alarmingly unrelenting precontraceptive families (Maria had eight pregnancies in double-quick time) – his professional good fortune began to match his private felicity. At this point, Gayford’s self-imposed task is all but done: they marry on page 318 and a mere 18 pages suffice to round things off.

It is revealing to contrast this division with that encountered in the still tremendously readable and affecting Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (which quotes extensively from its subject’s writings and correspondence), by the artist’s friend, C.R. Leslie, published in 1843, where, in the copy I own, they marry on page 69 of 331. Poignantly, John and Maria were granted only a dozen years together. Three days after her death from consumption, Constable wrote: “I shall never feel again as I have felt. The face of the world is totally changed to me.”

One has no sense that the long years of separation and suffering before his marriage were the making of Constable, but this book could not have been written without them, since it relies so heavily on the couple’s correspondence both to one another and – in the case of Constable – to family and friends. Emails and texts, and indeed the phone even before it achieved mobility, have made it impossible to conceive of anyone writing any such intimate biography of a 20th- or 21st-century subject in his or her own words.

The result of Gayford’s access to such wonderful source materials, both known and hitherto unpublished, is that Constable in Love comes closest in feel to a historical novel, a story whose frustrations and disappointments are rendered just about bearable by our knowledge that they all lived happily ever after. Gayford is a distinguished art critic, which doubtless explains his choice of theme, and also means he writes informatively about Constable’s art; but he wisely ensures that the narrative is neither overwhelmed nor becalmed by art historical analysis.