Skip to main content

Full text of "Constable"

See other formats


CONSTABLE 



^'^mifm 




MASTERPIECES 

IN COLOUR 



r 



^^>- 



c^<f A 



MASTERPIECES 

IN COLOUR 
EDITED BY - - 
T. LEMAN HARE 



CONSTABLE 

1776-1837 



" Masterpieces in Colour " Series 



Artist. 
VELAZQUEZ. 
REYNOLDS. 
TURNER. 
ROMNEY. 
GREUZE. 
BOTTICELLI. 
ROSSEXTI. 
BELLINL 
FRA ANGELICO. 
REMBRANDT. 
LEIGHTON. 
RAPHAEL. 
HOLMAN HUNT. 
TITIAN. 
MILLAIS. 
CARLO DOLCI. 
GAINSBOROUGH. 
TINTORETTO. 
LUINL 

FRANZ HALS. 
VAN DYCIC 

LEONARDO DA VINCL 
RUBENS. 
WHISTLER. 
HOLBEIN. 
BURNE-JONES. 
VIGEE LE BRUN. 
CHARDIN. 
FRAGONARD. 
MEMLINC. 
CONSTABLE. 
RAEBURN. 

john s. sargent. 

lawrence. 

dCtrer. 

MILLET. 

WATTEAU. 

HOGARTH. 

MURILLO. 

WATTS. 

INGRES. 



.■\UTHOR. 

S. L. Ben SUSAN. 
S. L. Bensi'sam. 
C. Lewis Hind. 
C Lewis Hind. 
Alys Evre Macklik. 
Henkv B. BiNNs. 

LUCIKN PlSSARRO. 

George H.w. 

James Mason. 

Josef Iskaels. 

A. Lvs Bai.dry. 

Paul G. Konodv. 

Mary E. Coleridge. 

S. L. Bensusan. 

A. Lvs Baldry. 

Georc.e Ha v. 

Max Rothschild. 

S. L. Hensusan. 

James Mason. 

Edgcumbk Staley. 

Percy M. Turner. 

hi. W. Brockwelu 

S. L. Bensusan. 

T. Martin Wood. 

S. L. Bknsusan. 

A. Lys Baldrv. 

C. Haldane MacFalu 

Paul G. Konodv. 

C. Haldane MacFall. 

W. H. J. & J. C. Wbalb, 

C. Lewis Hind. 

James L. Caw. 

T. Martin Wood. 

S. L. Bensusan. 

H. E. A, FuRST. 

Percy M. Turner. 

C. Lewis Hind. 

C. Lewis Hind. 

S. L. Bknsusan. 

W. LoFTus Hare. 

A. J. FiNBERG. 



Others in Prtparation. 



PLATE I.— THE VALLEY FARM. National Gallery. 
(Frontispiece). 

In "The Valley Farm," exhibited at the Royal Academy in 
1835, tv/o years before his death, Constable returned to the scenes 
of his boyhood, to Willy Lott's house on the banks of the Stour. 
His hand and eye have lost something of their grip and freshness, 
but his purpose is as firm as ever. *' I have preserved God 
Almighty's day light," he wrote, " which is enjoyed by all mankind, 
excepting only the lovers of old, dirty canvas, perished pictures at 
a thousand guineas each, cart grease, tar, and snuff of candle." 
The old Adam, you perceive, was still strong in him. 



CONSTABLE 

BY C. LEWIS HIND ® ® ® 
ILLUSTRATED WITH EIGHT 

REPRODUCTIONS IN COLOUR 




LONDON: T. C. & E. C. JACK 
NEW YORK: FllEDERICK A. STOKES CO. 






cz/ 



CONTENTS 

Chap. Page 

I. The Year 1824 11 

II. The Brown Tree 21 

III. His Life 32 

IV. His Sketches 51 

V. His Pictures 63 

VI. His Personality and Opinions . . '77 



vu 



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS 

Plate Page 

I. The Valley Farm .... Frontispiece 
(National Gallery) 

II. The Hay Wain 14 

(National Gallery) 

III. The Corn Field 24 

(National Gallery) 

IV. Flatford Mill 34 

(National Gallery) 

V. Dedham Mill 40 

(Victoria and Albert Museum) 

VI. A Country Lane 50 

(National Gallery) 

VII. Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's 

Garden 60 

(Victoria and Albert Museum) 

VIII. Salisbury 70 

(National Gallery) 



iX 



/^" 




CHAPTER I 

THE YEAR 1824 

JOHN CONSTABLE was forty-eight years 
of age in 1824, a memorable year in the 
history of landscape painting. A date 
to be remembered is 1824, for in that year 
Constable's "Hay Wain" was hung in the 
French Salon. That picture, which is now in 

XI 



12 CONSTABLE 

the National Gallery, marked an epoch in 
landscape art. 

Reams have been written about the influence 
of "The Hay Wain" upon French art, by 
critics who are all for Constable, by critics 
who are complimentary but temperate; and by 
critics who are lukewarm and almost resentful 
of the place claimed for Constable as pro- 
tagonist of nineteenth century landscape art. 
A guerilla critical warfare has also raged 
around the influence of Turner. Constable and 
Turner! Most modern landscape painters have, 
at one time or another, learnt from these two 
great pioneers. Turner is more potent to-day, 
but his influence took longer to assert itself. 
It was not until 1870 that Monet visited 
London to be dazzled by the range and 
splendour of Turner at the National Gallery. 
Forty-six years had passed since "The Hay 
Wain" was exhibited at the Salon. In that 
half-century the Barbizon School, those great 
men of 1830, Corot, Rousseau, Millet, Daubigny, 
Troyon, Diaz, and the rest had come to fruition. 
Constable has been claimed as their parent. 
Thor^, the French critic, who wrote under the 
name of G. W. BUrger, affirms that Constable 
was the point de depart of the Barbizon School ; 
but Albert Wolff, another eminent French critic, 



PLATE II.— THE HAY WAIN. National GaUery. 

Painted in 1821, exhibited in the French Salon in 1824, "The 
Hay Wain," with two other smaller works, which had been 
purchased from Constable by a French connoisseur, aroused extra- 
ordinary interest in Paris, and had a potent influence on French 
landscape art. So impressed was Delacroix with the naturalness, 
the freshness, and the brightness of Constable's pictures at the 
1824 Salon, that he completely repainted his "Massacre of Scio" 
in the four days that intervened before the opening of the exhibition. 



CONSTABLE 15 

was not of that opinion. Thore, writing in 1863, 
also said that although Constable had stimulated 
in France a school of painting unrivalled in 
the modern world, he had had no influence 
in his own country, a far too sweeping state- 
ment. 

The truth about Constable's influence on 
French art would seem to be midway between 
the opinions of Thore and Wolff. That Con- 
stable's exhibits at the Salon of 1824, which 
included two smaller landscapes besides "The 
Hay Wain," did arouse extraordinary interest, 
and did have a potent influence on French 
landscape art, there is no shadow of doubt. 
So impressed was Delacroix with the natural- 
ness, the freshness, and the brightness of 
Constable's pictures at the 1824 Salon, that, 
after studying them, he completely repainted 
his "Massacre of Scio" in the four days that 
intervened before the opening of the exhibition ; 
and the following year Delacroix visited London 
eager to see more of Constable's work. There 
is also the testimony of William Brockedon, 
who, on his return from the Salon, wrote thus 
to the painter of "The Hay Wain." The text 
of the letter is printed in C. R. Leslie's 
Memoirs of the Life of Constable^ a mine of 
information in which all writers on John Con- 



i6 CONSTABLE 

Stable, whom de Goncourt called "/e grand, le 
grandissime maitre," must delve. 

" My dear Constable," wrote William 
Brockedon, "You will find in the enclosed 
some remarks upon your pictures at Paris. I 
returned last night and brought this with me. 
The French have been forcibly struck by them, 
and they have created a division in the school 
of the landscape painters of France. You are 
accused of carelessness by those who ac- 
knowledge the truth of your effect; and the 
freshness of your pictures has taught them 
that though your means may not be essential, 
your end must be to produce an imitation of 
Nature, and the next Exhibition in Paris will 
teem with your imitators, or the school of 
Nature versus the school of Birmingham. I 
saw one man draw another to your pictures 
with this expression — * Look at these land- 
scapes by an Englishman; the ground appears 
to be covered with dew.'" 

Note these passages: They have created a 
division in the school of the landscape painters of 
France — Paris will teem with your imitators — The 
ground appears to be covered with dew. 

Constable received the gratifying news very 
quietly. Writing to Fisher from Charlotte Street, 
Fitzroy Square, on 17th December 1824, he 



CONSTABLE 17 

remarked — "My Paris affairs go on very well. 
Though the Director, the Count Forbin, gave 
my pictures very respectable situations in the 
Louvre in the first instance, yet on being 
exhibited a few weeks, they advanced in reputa- 
tion, and were removed from their original 
situations to a post of honour, two prime 
places in the principal room. I am much in- 
debted to the artists for their alarum in my 
favour; but I must do justice to the Count, 
who is no artist I believe, and thought that as 
the colours are rough they should be seen at a 
distance. They found the mistake, and now 
acknowledge the richness of texture, and 
attention to the surface of things. They are 
struck with their vivacity and freshness, things 
unknown to their own pictures. The truth is, 
they study (and they are very laborious students) 
pictures only, and as Northcote says, *They 
know as little of Nature as a hackney-coach 
horse does of a pasture* . . . However, it is 
certain they have made a stir, and set the 
students in landscape to thinking." 

Note the passages : They are struck with their 
vivacity and freshness — The truth is they study 
pictures only. 

I have quoted these letters at length, because 
they are first-hand authorities, and because they 



i8 CONSTABLE 

state, with simple directness, the effect of 
Constable's pictures at the Salon of 1824. The 
two smaller works that accompanied " The Hay 
Wain" we may disregard for the moment, and 
ask what is there in "The Hay Wain" that it 
should have so startled the French painting 
world, and that it should have marked an epoch 
in the history of landscape art. Stand before 
"The Hay Wain" in the National Gallery and 
ask yourself that question. If you are honest, 
you will admit, perhaps only to yourself, that 
"The Hay Wain" looks a little old-fashioned. 
And you will also admit that the full-sized 
sketch for "The Hay Wain," which you have 
surely noticed hanging in the Constable room 
at the Victoria and Albert Museum, pleases you 
better on account of its greater brilliance, vigour, 
and impulse. The finished picture, though very 
powerful, seems a little stolid, a little laboured, 
as if the painter had left nothing to "happy 
accident" but had worked with John Bull con- 
scientiousness over every inch of the canvas. 
You have in the last decade or two seen so 
many landscapes — pearly, atmospheric, spacious, 
vivid and vibrating with sunshine, that this 
"Hay Wain" by honest John, this English 
pastoral with the great sky, the shimmering 
water, and the leaves carefully accented with 



CONSTABLE 19 

colour to represent the flickers of light, does not 
astonish you. Perhaps you pass it by without 
a pause, without even a cursory examination. 
But remember this is 1909,1 and " The Hay 
Wain" made its sensatioiTTn 1824. In those 
eighty-five years landscape painting has pro- 
gressed at a faster rate than in all the preceding 
centuries. In 1824 "The Hay Wain" was a 
fresh vision, very new and arresting. Why? 
Simply because Constable returned to Nature 
and painted Nature. Again and again has this 
happened in the history of art from the time of 
Giotto onwards. The little men falter on, copy- 
ing one another, "studying pictures only," in 
Constable's phrase; the public accepts their 
wooden performances as true art; then the 
great man arises, often a very simple, straight- 
thinking, modest man like this John Constable, 
and the great man does nothing more miraculous 
than just to use his own eyes ; he refuses to be 
dictated to by others as to what he should see 
and do, and lo ! the world looks at what he has 
done, and either rejects him altogether (for a 
time), or says, " Here is a genius. Let us make 
much of him." 

One thing is certain. It was not by taking 
thought, by planning or scheming, that John 
Constable made that sensation at the Salon of 



20 CONSTABLE 

1824. It was born in him to be what he 
became — a painter of Nature. How easy and 
simple it seems. Everybody paints Nature to- 
day ; but in the early years of last century one 
had to be a great original to break away from 
tradition and from academic formulae, and to 
paint — just Nature. 

The awakening came to John Constable in 
1802, when he was twenty-six years of age. In 
a letter to his friend Dunthorne, Constable 
wrote from London : 

" For the last two years I have been running 
after pictures and seeking the truth at second 
hand ... I shall return to Bergholt, where I 
shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected 
manner of representing the scenes that may 
employ me. There is little or nothing in the 
Exhibitions worth looking up to. There is room 
for a natural painter." 

A natural painter he became — the painter of 
England, of simple rural scenes. At forty-seven 
years of age he lamented that he had never 
visited Italy, but the mood passed as quickly as 
it came, and he cries : *' No, but I was born to 
paint a happier land, my own dear old England." 
And from his own dear old England he banished 
the brown tree. But the droll story of the 
Brown Tree deserves a new chapter. 



CHAPTER II 

THE BROWN TREE 
*^ CONSTANT communion with pictures, 



A 



the tints of which are subdued by 
time, no doubt tends to unfit the eye 
for the enjoyment of freshness." 

So wrote the wise Leslie in a chapter narrating 
certain passages of art talk between Constable 
and Sir George Beaumont, when the painter 
was visiting the amiable baronet at Cole-Orton. 
The modern world is a Httle amused by Sir 
George Beaumont — collector, connoisseur, and 
painter — who, in his own ripe person, precisely 
and accurately exemplified Constable's criticism 
of certain French artists. "They study (and 
they are very laborious students) pictures only." 
Sir George loved art, as he understood the term, 
and it was not his fault that he could not see 
eye to eye with the young vision of Constable. 
Quite content and happy was Sir George; he 
did not wish to change. Loved art? He had 
a passion for art. Did he not always carry with 



31 



22 CONSTABLE 

him upon his journeys Claude's picture of 
"Hagar?" In 1826 he presented " Hagar," 
which is now catalogued under the title of 
" Landscape with Figures," to the nation ; but he 
felt so disconsolate without his adored picture 
that he begged to have it returned to him for 
his life-time. That was done, and on Sir 
George's death in 1828 his widow restored 
"Hagar" to the National Gallery. Study 
" Hagar," and you have the measure of the art 
predilections of Sir George Beaumont, collector, 
connoisseur, painter, patron, and ' friend of John 
Constable, and author of the famous question, 
" Do you find it very difficult to determine where 
to place your brown tree?" 

Constable's answer is recorded. *' Not in the 
least, for I never put such a thing into a picture." 

Sir George did. Observing the brown tree 
sprawling in the formal and academic pictures 
he prized and copied, he reproduced it laboriously 
in his own works. Apparently it never occurred 
to him that those brown trees may once have 
been green. 

"Sir George," says LesHe, "seemed to consider 
the autumnal tints necessary, at least to some 
part of a landscape." And Leslie is the authority 
for two oft-told stories about Caspar Poussin 
and about the Cremona fiddle. 



PLATE III.— THE CORNFIELD, OR COUNTRY LANE. 
National Gallery. 

Painted in 1826, and presented to the National Gallery in 1837 by 
an association of gentlemen, who purchased it of the painter's 
executors. A typical work. John Constable was pleased with 
his Cornfield. Writing of it to Archdeacon Fisher, he said—" It is 
not neglected in any part ; the trees are more than usually studied, 
well defined as well as the stems; they are shaken by a pleasant 
and healthful breeze at noon." 



CONSTABLE 25 

Sir George having placed a small landscape 
by Caspar Poussin on his easel, close to a 
picture he was painting, said, "Now, if I can 
match these tints I am sure to be right." 

"But suppose," replied Constable, "Caspar 
could rise from his grave, do you think he would 
know his own picture in its present state? or if 
he did, should we not find it difficult to persuade 
him that somebody had not smeared tar or 
cart grease over its surface, and then wiped it 
imperfectly off?" 

The fiddle story can be told in fewer words. 
Sir Ceorge having recommended the colour of 
an old Cremona fiddle for the prevailing tone of 
everything in Nature, Constable answered by 
laying an old fiddle on the green lawn before 
the house. 

Sir George Beaumont was one of the last of 
the servile disciples of Claude Lorraine and the 
Poussins, who conjured their followers into 
believing that a landscape must be composed in 
the grand or "classical" manner, and must 
conform to certain academic rules. Claude's 
drawings, preserved in the British Museum, 
proclaim that he could be as frank, delightful, 
and impulsive as Constable in his sketches ; but 
when Claude constructed a landscape of ruined 
temples and fatuous biblical or legendary figures, 



26 CONSTABLE 

the inspiration of his drawing usually evaporated. 
Claude's genius remained, and there are pictures 
by him, notably " The Enchanted Castle," that in 
their particular manner have never been sur- 
passed ; but alas ! it was not the genius that 
Sir George Beaumont imitated, but Claude's 
mannerisms and limitations. 

The stay-at-home Dutchmen who flooded the 
seventeenth century with their simple, homely, 
and often beautiful landscapes had no attraction 
for grandiose Sir George and his kin. The genius 
of Watteau which flashed into the eighteenth 
century, the commanding performances of 
Richard Wilson and Gainsborough in landscape, 
had no influence upon the practitioners of the 
grand manner. And in truth those pioneers 
suffered for their temerity. Wilson, who never 
quite cast off* the classical mantle, accepted 
with gratitude, at the height of his fame, the 
post of librarian to the Royal Academy. Gains- 
borough would have starved had he been 
obliged to depend upon landscape painting for 
a living, and Constable would have been in 
financial straits had he been obliged to depend 
for the support of his family entirely upon the 
sale of his pictures. 

Wilson died in 1782, Gainsborough in 1788, 
and J. R. Cozens, whom Constable described as 



CONSTABLE 27 

"the greatest genius who ever touched land- I 
scape," in 1799 ; but the careers of these men . 
cannot be said to have influenced their landscape | 
contemporaries. While Wilson, Gainsborough, 
and Cozens were still alive, certain boys were 
growing up in England, who were destined to 
make the nineteenth century splendid with their 
landscape performances. What a galaxy of 
names ! Old Crome and James Ward were 
born in 1769 ; Turner and Girtin in 1775 ; 
Constable in 1776. Cotman saw the light in 
1782, the year of Wilson's death ; David Cox 
in 1783 ; Peter de Wint in 1784, and the short 
and brilliant life of Bonington began in 1801. 
But landscape painting was still, and was to 
remain for long, the Cinderella of the arts. In 
1829 Cotman wrote a letter beginning, "My 
eldest son is following the same miserable 
profession." 

Constable's British contemporaries being men 
of genius of various degrees, men of individual 
vision, it is quite natural that his influence upon 
them should have been almost negligible. 
Turner, Old Crome, and Bonington owed nothing 
to Constable ; but in France it was different. In 
the early years of the nineteenth century when 
Englishmen were producing magnificent work 
which was to bring them such great posthumous 



28 CONSTABLE 

fame and such small rewards during their life- 
time, landscape painting in France was still 
slumbering in classical swathing-bands. As if 
frightened out of originality by the horrors of 
the French Revolution of 1789, the landscape 
painters of France for thirty years and more 
remained steeped in the apathy of classicism. 

David (1748-1825) dominated the French art 
world, and no mere landscape painter was able to 
dispel the heavy tradition that David imposed in 
historical painting. True there were protestors, 
original men (there always are), but they were 
powerless to stem the turgid stream. There 
was Paul Huet and there was Georges Michel, 
happy no doubt in their work, but unfortunate 
in living before their time. Michel, neglected, 
misunderstood, was excluded from the Salon 
exhibitions after 1814, on account of his re- 
volutionary tendencies. We note signs of 
the brown tree obsession in Michel's spacious 
and simple landscapes, but he painted the 
environs of Paris, and did not give a thought to 
theatrical renderings of Plutarch, Theocritus, 
Ovid, or Virgil. 

France was ripe for Constable at that 
memorable Salon of 1824, simple, straight-seeing 
Constable, who painted his Suffolk parish, not 
the tumbling ruins of Italy, and who showed that 



CONSTABLE 29 

" the sun shines, that the wind blows, that water 
wets, and that air and light are everywhere." 
But Constable's influence on the French painters, 
although great, must not be overstated. Change 
was in the air. Herald signs had not been 
lacking of the rebirth of French landscape 
painting. The French critics of the Salons had 
already begun to complain of the stereotyped 
classical ruins and brown-tree landscapes ; they 
announced that they were weary of ** malarious 
lakes, desolate wastes, and terrible cliffs." 
Joyfully they welcomed in the Salon of 1822 the 
brilliant water-colours of Bonington, Copley 
Fielding, and other Englishmen, and then came 
i!824 with Constable showing that the bright, 
fresh colours were also possible in oil, and that 
a fine picture could be made out of an "un- 
picturesque locality," a lock, a cottage, a hay- 
wain, a cornfield, quite as well as from a 
"Plague among the Philistines at Ashdod," or 
an '* Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba." 

As has been already explained. Constable 
did not dream of the success and fame that was 
in store for him in Paris. "The Hay Wain" 
was painted in 1821 ; he was then forty-five, and 
as will be seen from the following letter written 
in 1822, he had not found art remunerative. 

"I have some nibbles at my large picture of 



30 CONSTABLE 

* The Hay Wain ' in the British Gallery. I have 
an offer of seventy pounds without the frame to 
form part of an exhibition in Paris. I hardly 
know what to do. It might promote my fame 
and procure me commissions, but it is the 
property of my family; though I want money 
dreadfully; and, on this subject, I must beg a 
great favour of you, indeed, I can do it of no 
other person. The loan of twenty pounds or 
thirty pounds would be of the greatest use to 
me at this time, as painting these large pictures 
has much impoverished me." 

In 1824 the nibble became a bite. " The Hay 
Wain " with the two other pictures was sold *' to 
a Frenchman " for two hundred and fifty pounds. 
The Frenchman's object was to make a show of 
them in Paris. He did so to some purpose. 
And it is odd to note that the name of this 
farseeing Frenchman has never been disclosed. 

Above "The Hay Wain" in the National 
Gallery hangs James Ward's fine picture called 
"View of Harlech Castle and surrounding land- 
scape." That is the official title, but I suggest 
that the title should be, " The End of the Brown 
Tree." You will observe that the brown tree has 
been cut down and is being hurried away in a 
cart drawn by four grey horses. I do not accuse 
the Director of the National Gallery of joking ; 



CONSTABLE 31 

but I cannot think it was altogether without 
intention that, in the rehanging of the room, 
James Ward's allegory of the end of the Brown 
Tree should have been hung above Constable's 
" Hay Wain," the pioneer picture of the new 
movement. 



CHAPTER III 
HIS LIFE 

CONSTABLE had a happy, uneventful life 
and a quiet death. A happy life ? Yes. 
For the loss of friends and the depression 
of spirits that clouded his closing years are 
events that happen to not a few who have lived 
the major portion of their lives pleasantly and 
successfully. Practical, level-headed, industrious, 
there is no hint of the aberrations or eccentrici- 
ties of genius in the orderly and fruitful sixty-one 
years of his existence, which began in 1776, and 
ended in 1837. 

Probably the severest blow in his life was the 
death of his wife in 1828, leaving him with seven 
children. It came, almost without warning, the 
year after the family had settled so contentedly in 
Well Walk, Hampstead. 

"This house," he wrote, "is to my wife's 

heart's content ; it is situated on an eminence at 

the back of the spot in which you saw us, and 

our little drawing-room commands a view unsur- 

32 



PLATE IV.— FLATFORD MILL ON THE RIVER STOUR. 
National Gallery. 

Painted in 1817. Constable was then forty-one, a somewhat 
mature age for a man to produce what may fairly be called his 
first important work. It is a picture of England — ripe, lush, care- 
fully composed, carefully executed, but fresh as are the meadows 
on the banks of the Stour; and the sky, across which the large 
clouds are drifting, is sunny. 



CONSTABLE 35 

passed in Europe, from Westminster Abbey to 
Gravesend. The dome of St Paul's in the air 
seems to realise Michael Angelo's words on 
seeing the Pantheon ; * I will build such a thing 
in the sky.'" After his wife's death Constable 
returned to his former residence in Charlotte 
Street, Fitzroy Square; but he retained Well 
Walk, and often sojourned there. 

Probably the greatest surprise, and certainly 
one of the most comforting episodes of his life, 
was the receipt of a legacy of twenty thousand 
pounds on the death of his wife's father, which 
elicited the remark that now he could "stand 
before a six-foot canvas with a mind at ease, 
thank God!" 

Constable developed slowly as a painter, but 
having once found himself he strode steadily 
onward, knowing exactly what he meant to do, 
turning neither to the right nor to the left, 
indifferent to tradition, schools, and influences. 
Consequently the earlier years of his life, when he 
was breaking away from tradition and beginning 
to see things with his own eyes are the more 
interesting. He was born at East Bergholt in 
Suffolk on nth June 1776, the second son of 
Golding Constable, owner of water and wind 
mills. At the Dedham Grammar School he was 
renowned for his penmanship, and before he left 



2,6 CONSTABLE 

school, at seventeen years of age, he had already 
shown a strong inclination towards painting. In 
this he was encouraged by his friend John 
Dunthorne, plumber and glazier, a man of parts, 
who devoted his leisure time to landscape 
painting. 

Fate was complaisant to Constable. Born in 
an opulent and wooded quarter of Suffolk, on a 
spot overlooking the fertile valley of the Stour, 
with a friend close at hand who loved Nature and 
painted her for pleasure not for profit, can we 
wonder that, later in life, Constable wrote 
enthusiastically and gratefully of ^'the scenes of 
my boyhood which made me a painter." A 
painter he was from the beginning, for his father's 
proposal that he should take Orders was never 
really seriously entertained, and the year that he 
spent as a miller was surely of more service to 
him as a student of Nature than if he had spent 
the period as a student in an art school. As a 
miller, the " handsome miller " he was called, he 
learnt at first hand the ways of winds, clouds, 
and storms; in an art school he would have 
learned how his predecessors had decided that 
antique statues should be drawn and "shaded." 
Yes ; everything conspired to make John Con- 
stable "a natural painter." The art schools 
would serve him later, but that year as a miller 



CONSTABLE 37 

watching the skies, noting the winds, observing 
the growth of crops, and the demeanour of trees, 
was the foundation of his originality. He was 
but sixteen — that impressionable period when 
everything is new, and the eyes of body and soul 
absorb and retain. In that fresh and impulsive 
sketch called "Spring," now in the Victoria 
and Albert Museum, he painted, later in life, one 
of the mills in which he worked, upon the timbers 
of which he had carved the words "John Con- 
stable, 1792." In the second edition of his " Life," 
published in 1845, Leslie says that the name and 
date, neatly carved with a penknife, "still 
remain." Leslie also prints Constable's descrip- 
tion of this " Spring " sketch which was engraved 
by David Lucas. 

"It may perhaps give some idea of one of 
those bright silvery days in the spring, when at 
noon large garish clouds surcharged with hail or 
sleet sweep with their broad shadows the fields, 
woods, and hills ; and by their depths enhance 
the value of the vivid greens and yellows so 
peculiar to the season. The natural history^ if 
the expression may be used, of the skies, which 
are so particularly marked in the hail squalls at 
this time of the year, is this. . . ." Then follows 
a lengthy and intimate study of the natural history 
of the skies, showing what stores of knowledge 



38 CONSTABLE 

he had amassed during the year he worked as a 
miller. Is it exaggeration to describe that year 
as the most important of his life. It gave him 
the independent outlook, the rough intimacy with 
fields and hedgerows under the influences of 
light and weather, that new-old knowledge which 
so astonished the French artists at the Salon of 
1824. Constable began with the skies of Nature, 
he went on to study the skies of Claude, 
Ruysdael, and other masters ; but he returned to 
the skies and pastures of Nature, never to leave 
them again. 

Here is a further episode of Constable's youth 
before he visited London, another example of 
the luck, there is no other word for it, that 
attended his art beginnings. The Dowager 
Lady Beaumont lived at Dedham, where Golding 
Constable owned a water-mill, and as the families 
were friendly, Constable early made the acquaint- 
ance of her son. Sir George Beaumont, who was 
twenty-three years his senior. He had already 
approved of some copies made by the youth in pen 
and ink after Dorigny's engravings of the cartoons 
of Raphael, and he had showed him the *' Hagar " 
by Claude, already mentioned, which Sir George 
always carried about with him when he travelled. 
What was still more important, he displayed 
before his protege thirty water-colours by Girtin. 



PLATE v.— DEDHAM MILL. Victoria and Albert Museum. 

Painted in 1820, three years after " Flatford Mill." Constable's 
father was the owner of the watermills at Flatford and Dedham. 
Many years before the date of this picture, Constable, writing of 
a landscape of Dedham by an acquaintance, said — " It is very well 
painted, and there is plenty of light without any light at all." 
In " Dedham Mill," he progresses in his purpose to infuse true 
light into Ills pictures. 



CONSTABLE 41 

The Claude and the array of Girtins produced an 
enormous impression upon young Constable. In 
Claude he made acquaintance with an old 
master, who had been the first to paint pure land- 
scape in the approved grand or classical manner ; 
in Girtin was revealed to him the harbinger of a 
new epoch in landscape painting, the young 
Girtin, friend and fellow-student of Turner, who 
died in 1802 at the age of twenty-seven, and of 
whom Turner said — "Had Girtin lived, I should 
have starved." 

In 1795 Constable made a tentative visit to 
London, ''for the purpose of ascertaining what 
might be his chance of success as a painter." He 
carried with him a letter to Joseph Farrington, 
pupil of Richard Wilson, who predicted that *' his 
style of landscape would one day form a distinct 
feature in the art." Constable also made the 
acquaintance of John Thomas Smith, the 
engraver, known as '' Antiquity Smith," who gave 
him the following excellent advice, which shows 
that the revolt against the academic landscape 
had already begun in England : 

"Do not," said "Antiquity Smith," "set about 
inventing figures for a landscape taken from 
Nature; for you cannot remain an hour in any 
spot, however solitary, without the appearance 
of some living thing that will in all probability 



42 CONSTABLE 

accord better with the scene and time of day 
than will any invention of your ov/n." 

That visit to London "for the purpose of 
ascertaining what might be his chance of success 
as a painter," would seem to have been encourag- 
ing neither to himself nor to his parents. No 
immediate answer was forthcoming, and while 
the decision was in abeyance his time was 
divided between London and Bergholt It is on 
record that he worked hard : that he studied 
Leonardo's Treatise on Painting; that he read 
Ressner's Essay on Landscape ; and that he 
painted two pictures — ''A Chymist" and "An 
Alchymist" — of very little merit. Gradually it 
seems to have been recognised that he was to 
become not a painter, but a clerk in his father's 
counting-house. In 1797, at the age of twenty- 
one, young Constable wrote to "Antiquity 
Smith " : 

" I must now take your advice and attend to 
my father's business . . . now I see plainly it will 
be my lot to walk through life in a path contrary 
to that in which my inclination would lead me." 
Poor John ! Not even a peep of the skies from the 
windmill, merely a stool in the counting-house. 

This threat of the counting-house stool seems 
to have been only a temporary menace. His 
biographer dwells very briefly on those dark 



CONSTABLE 43 

disillusioned days. Suddenly the clouds lift, and 
in 1799 we find him admitted a student of the 
Royal Academy Schools. His biographer breaks 
the news dramatically, with the statement — "in 
the year 1799 he had resumed the pencil, not 
again to lay it aside." No record is given of the 
period he presumably passed in his father's 
counting-house. We know only that at twenty- 
three years of age he attained his heart's desire. 
The following passage from a letter written to 
Dunthorne, on 4th February 1799, inaugurates 
Constable's career as a painter: 

"I am now comfortably settled in Cecil Street, 
Strand, Number twenty-three. I shall begin 
painting as soon as I have the loan of a sweet 
little picture by Jacob Ruysdael to copy." No 
doubt he learned much from copying Ruysdael 
and other masters, but Nature was his real tutor. 
Later in the year he writes from Ipswich : 

" It is a most delightful country for a painter. 
I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and 
hollow tree." And in 1802 he makes that memor- 
able communication by letter to Dunthorne 
after a visit to Sir George Beaun;iont's pictures, 
to which reference has already been made. 

" For the last two years I have been running 
after pictures, and seeking the truth at second 
hand ... I shall return to Bergholt, v/here I 



44 CONSTABLE 

shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected 
manner of representing the scenes that may 
employ me . . . There is room for a natural 
painter. The great vice of the day is bravura^ 
an attempt to do something beyond the truth." 

Constable had now thirty-five years of life 
before him, through which he worked un- 
wearingly, joyfully, to become a natural painter. 
Henceforth he was the interpreter of English 
"cultivated scenery" — pastures and the skies, 
trees and cottages, the farm-hand, the farm- 
waggon, the farm-horse, the fugitive rain and the 
wind that passes. Mountains, the sea, the piled 
up majestic picturesqueness of Nature did not 
attract him. In brain, heart, and vision he was 
essential pastoral England, and never did he 
better express his innermost feeling than when 
he wrote : 

" I love every stile and stump and lane in the 
village ; as long as I am able to hold a brush, I 
shall never cease to paint them." 

The life of a painter is not usually exciting, 
.and Constable's life was no exception Here 
are a few dates. In 1802, at the age of twenty- 
six, he exhibited his first picture, under the 
unambitious title "A Landscape," at the Royal 
Academy ; in 1816, at forty, he married ; in 1819, 
at forty-three, he was elected A.R.A.; in 1824, his 



CONSTABLE 45 

" Hay Wain " was exhibited at the Salon ; in 1828 
his wife died; in 1829, at fifty-three, he was elected 
R.A., and in 1837 he died. The end was sudden. 
He had been at work during the day on his last 
picture of "Arundel Mill and Castle," and 
although his friends noticed that he was not 
looking well, he was able to go out that evening 
on an errand connected with the Artists* 
Benevolent Fund. He retired to bed about 
nine o'clock, read as was his custom, and when 
the servant removed the candle by which he had 
been reading, he was asleep. Later he awoke in 
great pain, and died within an hour. The post- 
mortem revealed no indications of disease, and 
the extreme pain, says Leslie, from which 
Constable suffered and died could only be 
traced to indigestion. The vault in the south- 
east corner of the churchyard at Hampstead 
where his wife had been buried, and from the 
shock of whose death he never quite recovered, 
was opened, and he was laid by her side. 

His art was sane and healthy, but his letters 
show that during the latter part of his life he 
suffered from depression and morbid fancies. 

"All my indispositions," he wrote to Fisher, 
" have their source in my mind. It is when I am 
restless and unhappy that I become susceptible 
of cold, damp, heats, and such nonsense." And, 



46 CONSTABLE 

to sum up, Leslie recalls a passage written by 
Constable ten years before his death, in which, 
after speaking of having removed his family to 
Hampstead, he says : " I could gladly exclaim, 
here let me take my everlasting rest." 

But his life was an extremely happy one on 
the whole; the legacies he received, placed him 
in comfortable circumstances, and if, outside his 
own fraternity, his art was but little encouraged, 
that was the lot of all landscape painters. It is 
said that he was nearly forty before he sold a 
landscape beyond the circle of his relatives and 
personal friends. This was probably the 
"Ploughing Scene in Suffolk," bought from the 
Royal Academy Exhibition of 1814 by Mr AUnutt. 
But to set against this tardy recognition, there 
was the splendour of the acknowledgments that 
came later — his gold medal at the 1824 Salon, and 
the gold medal at Lille in 1825 for his "White 
Horse." The priced catalogue of the sale of his 
pictures and sketches after his death shows how 
enormously the appreciation of Constable has 
increased. The two magnificent studies for "The 
Hay Wain" and "The Leaping Horse" now at 
the Victoria and Albert Museum, were sold in one 
lot for fourteen pounds ten shillings ; " Salisbury 
Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden," went 
for sixty-four pounds one shilling, and "The 



CONSTABLE 47 

Opening of Waterloo Bridge' for sixty-three 
pounds. 

Constable fell under the ban of Ruskin — 
unjustly, " I have never seen any work of his in 
which there were signs of his being able to 
draw " is the opening of an oft-quoted passage ; 
but when Modern Painters was being written, as 
Mr Sturge Henderson points out, the magnificent 
collection of Constable's tree studies and 
sketches, now at South Kensington, were still in 
private hands. Ruskin could never have taunted 
Constable with not being able to draw had he 
examined those studies. Although not a great 
draughtsman he was certainly a conscientious, 
competent, and life-long student of drawing. 

Constable has now his assured high place in 
British art. So valuable have his paintings 
become, that he has long been a prey to the 
forger and the clever copyist. Mr C. J. Holmes, 
in his exhaustive and discriminating work on 
Constable, devotes four pages to an examination 
of the methods of the forgers. In another 
appendix he prints a chronological list of 
Constable's chief pictures and sketches, from 
i795j the year of his earliest dated work, "A 
Study after Claude," to the "Arundel Mill and 
Castle," exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1837. 
At the beginning of the record of each year's 



48 CONSTABLE 

work there is a line giving the " Places Visited " 
by Constable during the year. These bare 
records are like so many windows opening to the 
country places which Constable loved, where he 
spent joyous, enthusiastic days; for Constable 
was never so happy as when he stood with 
brushes and palette face to face with Nature. 
Turner was a world traveller — the world of 
Europe. Constable was a home traveller — the 
homely stiles, stumps, and lanes of the village. 
What a vista the following mere record of the 
Places Visited in 1823 gives : London, Southgate, 
Suffolk, Salisbury, Gillingham, Sherbourne, 
Fonthill, Cole-Orton. Can you not see him 
drawing from each place fresh and dewy inspira- 
tion? Not "truth at second-hand": truth direct 
from the source. And does not the heart respond 
to Constable's generous enthusiasm for his great 
contemporary. Here is his testimony to Turner's 
contributions to the Royal Academy Exhibition 
of 1828 : 

"Turner has some golden visions, glorious 
and beautiful. They are only visions, but still, 
they are art, and one could live and die with such 
pictures," 



PLATE VI.— A COUNTRY LANE. National Gallery. 

This sketch probably served as the motive for the picture of 
♦' The Cornfield." The sobriety of the work places it in a category 
between the careful construction of the Exhibition pictures and 
the impetuosity of most of the sketches. 



CHAPTER IV 

HIS SKETCHES 

CONSTABLE exhibited one hundred and 
four works at the Royal Academy. In 
addition to these and other paintings, he 
produced many brilliant sketches and a number 
of drawings. Like Turner, his achievements may 
be exhaustively studied in public Exhibitions in 
London, and as with Turner, the difficulty is 
where to begin. At the National Gallery there is 
a wall composed, with one exception, entirely of 
his works ; the Victoria and Albert Museum con- 
tains a room, or rather a hall of his pictures, 
sketches, and studies, and he is also represented 
at the Tate and Diploma Galleries. Some of the 
examples were bequeathed to the nation by his 
last surviving daughter. Miss Isabel Constable, 
in 1888. Two years later Henry Vaughan be- 
queathed a number of works, including "The 
Hay Wain." 

The casual visitor finds little emotional 
excitement, and no literary interest in these 
honest interpretations of English scenery. 

51 



52 CONSTABLE 

Constable was never dramatic (^* The Opening of 
Waterloo Bridge " may be counted an exception) 
or idealistic like Turner. From a scenic point of 
view, "The Hay Wain" is dull compared with 
" Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus," and knowledge 
of art history is not so widely diffused as to give 
to "The Hay Wain" the interest it should 
command as a pioneer picture in modern land- 
scape. Constable does not thrill. Roast beef 
does not thrill, but it is wholesome and life- 
communicating. Constable was a prosaic man of 
genius. Once he said that " painting is another 
word for feeling," but he also made that most 
characteristic retort to Blake, who, when looking 
through one of Constable's sketch - books, 
exclaimed on seeing a drawing of fir-trees on 
Hampstead Heath — "Why, this is not drawing, 
but inspiration." To which Constable quietly 
replied — " I meant it for drawing." 

Constable never desired to thrill ; his ambition 
was merely to be a natural painter, and he would 
probably not have been in the least distressed at 
the episode related by Mr Sturge Henderson in 
his biography. An elegant and attractive 
American woman after examining "The Glebe 
Farm " in the National Gallery, remarked to her 
son, a typical undergraduate: "Does this thrill 
you ? " " Not the least in the world," replied the 



CONSTABLE 53 

son, and they passed on. No doubt these cul- 
tured moderns desired in a painting the "beauty 
touched with strangeness," that Botticelli and 
Piero della Francesca offer : there is no place in 
such aesthetic lives for the familiarity touched with 
honesty of John Constable. To-day his innova- 
tions — his attempts to represent the vibration of 
light, his spots and splashes of colour to counter- 
feit the sun glitter, his touches and scrapings laid 
on with the palette knife to obtain force and 
brightness — have become a commonplace. 

Constable, being a pioneer, was accustomed to 
misunderstanding and also to badinage. His 
breezy and showery effects, blowing wind, 
rustling grasses, waving trees, and wet rain, were 
occasionally the subjects of banter from his fellow 
Academicians and others. Fuseli, Professor of 
Painting, a bad artist, but a good joker, was once 
seen to open his umbrella as he entered the 
Exhibition. 

"What are you doing with your umbrella 
up?" asked a friend. 

" Oh," replied Fuseli, " I am going to look at 
Mr Constable's pictures ! " 

That was really a great compliment, and I may 
cap the story by quoting the brief, bald, criticism 
of Sir William Beechy on Constable's " Salisbury 
from the Meadows." 



54 CONSTABLE 



(( 



Why, d n it, Constable, what a d d fine 

picture you are making ; but you look d d ill, 

and you have got a d d bad cold." 

No. Constable of the " unpicturesque locali- 
ties" does not thrill, and his pictures evoke a 
meditative rather than an ecstatic mood. In his 
large works one never finds the haunting charm 
of a fine Corot, the majesty of a Rousseau, or the 
clarity of light and colour of a Harpigny. He did 
not, except in rare cases, select from the abund- 
ance of Nature ; he was content with facts as he 
saw them, and he laboured at his surfaces until 
sometimes one can hardly disentangle the 
incidents for the paint in which they are 
enveloped. "The Leaping Horse," in the 
Diploma Gallery, is a magnificent performance in 
picture-making but it is heavy — heavy as a mid- 
day English Sunday dinner. It has force, 
strength, knowledge, vigour, but little beauty, 
except perhaps in the sweep of sky; and 
certainly no strangeness. The signs of labour 
are written all over it; you feel that he has 
carefully and conscientiously composed this 
picture for an exhibition, and that in the long 
labour he has lost the early impulse and freshness 
of the pensie mhre. To see how much he lost 
you have only to study the large sketch for " The 
Leaping Horse," in the Victoria and Albert 



CONSTABLE 55 

Museum, finer, bolder, much more instinct with 
Hfe and inspiration than the finished production. 
Which brings me to the two great divisions of 
Constable's life-work — the sketches, which we 
are told he did not regard as *' serious," and the 
finished pictures. 

His sketches are innumerable, and all, or at 
any rate the great majority of them possess the 
impulse, the lyrical note, so often lacking in his 
larger canvases. Of course, this criticism 
applies to all painters. The sketch is made for 
love, the picture for an Exhibition. What could 
be more luminously spacious, unworried and 
unfettered by the convention of picture-making 
than his small oil-sketch of ** Harwich : Sea and 
Lighthouse," in the Tate Gallery, of which there 
is a pencil sketch at South Kensington, dated 
1815. Here is the first impression caught and 
transferred to canvas while the blood was still hot, 
the pulse quick, and the eyes eager to record this 
scene of desolate beauty, vast sky, rippling ocean, 
bare foreshore, lonely lighthouse, and one figure 
in the foreground, with notes of almost indis- 
tinguishable figures beyond the lighthouse, and a 
few remote sails upon the sea. It has not the 
learning of *'The Hay Wain" or *'The Leaping 
Horse," and the steady flame of Constable's fame 
would probably long ago have been extinguished 



56 CONSTABLE 

had it depended for existence entirely upon his 
sketches ; but, speaking for myself, it is to his 
sketches that I go for joy. Verily this student of 
Nature, who disliked autumn and loved spring ; 
who painted summer, "its breezes, its heat, its 
heavy colouring," its gusts of winds, its sudden 
storms ; verily he lives in our hearts wherever our 
eyes meet his sketches. They induce, they 
compel one to linger in such places as the dark 
staircase of the Diploma Gallery, in Burlington 
House, the walls of which sing out with two 
groups of his sketches, significant moments seen 
in Nature. That beach and sea ; the rain-storm 
streaming down the canvas; those floating 
clouds, only the clouds and the sky visible ; that 
boat with the red sail labouring in the heavy 
water — they are essential Constable. And what 
an object lesson in the making of a landscape 
painter is provided by the hall of drawings, 
pictures, and sketches at the Victoria and Albert 
Museum. They are a standing refutation of 
Ruskin's words — *' I have never seen any work of 
his in which there were signs of his being able to 
draw, and hence the most necessary details are 
painted by him insufficiently." Constable was 
not an inspired draughtsman ; but that he worked 
hard at drawing, and that he achieved consider- 
able mastery with his pencil is abundantly 



CONSTABLE 57 

testified by the many examples at South Ken- 
sington, notably, *'The Study of Trees at 
Hampstead," the "Windsor Castle from the 
River," the "Cart and Horses," and above all the 
magnificent and minute "Stem of an Elm Tree," 
none of which, as has already been noted, Ruskin 
had ever seen. These are all interesting, almost 
meticulously conscientious, but for John Con- 
stable in more daring mood, carried away by the 
riot of the scene, we must turn to such sketches 
as the chaotic cloud forms of " Weymouth Bay," 
and the splashy, opulent splendour of the oil 
sketch called "View on the Stour." Or to the 
sketches that emerge, modestly but clamantly, 
from the large works on the wall devoted to his 
achievement at the National Gallery, which con- 
tains no fewer than twenty-two examples by 
Constable. One of them, "A Country Lane," 
illustrated in these pages, served as a motive for 
his picture of " The Cornfield." The sobriety and 
somewhat heavy handling of this oil sketch 
places it in a category between the careful con- 
struction of the Exhibition pictures, and the 
impetuosity of most of the sketches. But the 
atmospheric " Salisbury " that hangs below, to the 
left of "A Country Lane," which is a preliminary 
study without the rainbow for the picture of 
"Salisbury from the Meadows," has all the 



58 CONSTABLE 

quick, almost feverish informality of his best 
sketches. It is larger than the sketches, but 
shows no anxiety. The hand following the eye 
stopped when the vision of the eye was recorded, 
when all the hurry of the wet glitter of the 
scene had been stated in broken pigment. As a 
contrast, examine "A Cornfield with Figures," 
a tranquilly beautiful suggestion of late summer — 
fifteen and a half inches by nine and a half— thinly 
painted rain-clouds floating past, the heat haze 
hovering in the field of corn partly reaped and 
stocked. The vivid, "Summer Afternoon after a 
Shower," hanging near by has an interest apart 
from its spontaneity and vigour. It is precisely 
what it looks, the recollection of a summer 
shower, noted in an ecstatic moment, and 
recorded at a sitting. The story is told by 
Leslie — how Constable was travelling by coach 
either to or from Brighton; how at Redhill he 
saw this effect ; how he treasured the memory of 
it until the coach reached its destination, and 
how "immediately on alighting," he made this 
sketch of one wild moment snatched from 
Nature. 

It was this constant study of Nature that 
distinguished Constable from those of his 
academic predecessors and contemporaries who 
studied only the works of other painters. It was 



PLATE VII. -SALISBURY CATHEDRAL FROM THE 
BISHOP'S GARDEN. Victoria and Albert Museum. 

In the interval between the painting of "The Hay Wain" (1821) 
and its exhibition in Paris (1824), Constable produced "Salisbury 
Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden," wherein he attempted to 
represent the glitter of sunlight by spots of pure pigment, which 
his friends called " Constable's snow." 



CONSTABLE 6i 

in this solitary communion with Nature that 
Constable showed the originality of his genius. 
How thorough he was. He was not content to 
note only what his eyes saw, but he also observed 
and recorded the time of day and the direction of 
the wind. 

" Twenty of Constable's studies of skies made 
during this season (1822) are in my possession," 
says Leslie, "and there is but one among them 
in which a vestige of landscape is introduced. 
They are painted in oil, on large sheets of thick 
paper, and all dated, with the time of day, the 
direction of the wind, and other memoranda on 
their backs. On one, for instance, is written : 

'Fifth of September 1822. Ten o'clock 
morning, looking south-east, brisk wind at west. 
Very bright and fresh, grey clouds running fast 
over a yellow bed, about half-way in the sky.*" 

That is the real Constable speaking, the 
Constable who had "found himself" But we 
are never wholly emancipated from tradition, and 
knowing the difficulties of his craft he retained 
his admiration for the great ones among his 
predecessors. In 1824, he wrote : " I looked into 
Angerstein's the other day; how paramount is 
Claude ..." 

Maybe. But Claude had to be left alone. 
Constable knew that in his heart, and, as he 



62 CONSTABLE 

advanced in wisdom, art at second-hand held 
him less and less, and art at first hand, which 
is Nature, more and more. He learnt to rely 
upon his eyes and the cunning of his hand. 
And when he "thanked Heaven he had no 
imagination," there was more in that utterance 
than appears on the surface. 



CHAPTER V 
HIS PICTURES 

IN one of his letters, dated 1799, Constable 
refers to "a sweet little picture by Jacob 
Ruysdael I am copying." He was then 
twenty-three years of age, a devoted admirer 
and student of his predecessors in landscape, and 
able, strange as it may seem to us, to call a 
Ruysdael sweet. In the style of the old masters 
he continued working until he was nearly forty, 
learning from them how to construct a picture, 
and "acquiring execution" as he expressed it. 
A methodical man was John Constable, a builder 
who spared no trouble to make his foundations 
sound ; but during those years of spade work in 
his voluntary apprenticeship, he never disregarded 
his determination to become a natural painter. 
It was his custom to study and copy the old 
masters during his sojourn in London, but to 
paint in his own original way, directly from 
Nature and in the open air, when in the country. 
An early result of "being himself" during holiday 

63 



64 CONSTABLE 

time was the " Dedham Vale " oil sketch of 1802, 
now at South Kensington, a careful, reposeful 
picture with trees rising formally at the right, 
and the church tower visible just beyond the 
winding river. He utilised this sketch for the 
large picture exhibited, under the same title, in 
1828. The influence of other painters such as the 
Dutch landscape men, Gainsborough and Girtin, 
may be traced in many of his pictures produced 
in the opening years of the nineteenth century 
when he was "acquiring the execution" on 
which he based his originality. He also painted 
portraits ; indeed at one time he proposed to live 
by portrait painting. During 1807 and the next 
few years he produced several, notably Mr 
Charles Lloyd of Birmingham and his wife, which 
Mr C. J. Holmes describes as "amateurish and 
uncertain in drawing and execution." But there 
was nothing amateurish or uncertain about the 
" Portrait of a Boy," which I have lately seen, a 
ruddy country boy, clad in pretty town-like 
clothes, an honest, direct, rich piece of work, 
without a hint of affectation, just the vision of the 
eye set down straightforwardly. And the fox- 
gloves that stand growing by the boy's right hand 
are painted as honestly as the striped pantaloons 
that this open-air boy wears. Just the kind of 
portrait that John Constable would have painted. 



CONSTABLE 65 

He also produced two altarpieces — in 1804, a 
"Christ Blessing Little Children" at Brantham 
Church, Suffolk ; and in 1809, a " Christ Blessing 
the Elements" at Nayland Church. 

Eight years later, in 1817, he painted " Flatford 
Mill on the Stour," No. 1273 in the National 
Gallery, which forms one of our illustrations. 
Constable was then forty-one, a somewhat 
mature age for a man to produce what may fairly 
be called his first important picture. But all his 
past life had been a preparation for this photo- 
graphic, pleasant transcript of English scenery. 
Nothing is left to the imagination, everything is 
stated, every inch of canvas is painted with equal 
force, yet what an advance it is upon most of the 
classical landscapes then in vogue. It is a 
picture of England, ripe, lush, carefully composed, 
carefully executed, but fresh as are the meadows 
on the banks of the Stour ; and the sky across 
which the large clouds are drifting is sunny. 
This picture was bought in at the Constable sale, 
held the year after his death, in 1838, for the very 
modest sum of thirty-three guineas. 

"The White Horse," called also "A Scene 
on the River Stour," exhibited at the Royal 
Academy in 1819, which is now in the possession 
of Mr Pierpont Morgan, was one of Constable's 
early successes. It attracted "more attention 



66 CONSTABLE 

than anything he had before exhibited," and was 
bought for one hundred guineas, "exclusive of 
the frame," by Archdeacon Fisher, who wrote on 
27th April: — "*The White Horse* has arrived; 
it is hung on a level with the eye, the frame 
resting on the ogee moulding in a western side 
light, right for the light in the picture. It looks 
magnificently." "The White Horse" realised 
one hundred and fifty guineas at the Constable 
sale, and in 1894, fifty-six years later, was bought 
by Messrs Agnew for six thousand two hundred 
guineas. 

With "The White Horse" Constable also 
sent to the British Gallery a picture called 
"The Mill," which is supposed to be identical 
with the " Dedham Mill, Essex," at the Victoria 
and Albert Museum. 1819 was a successful 
year for Constable, a golden year. He was 
summoned to Bergholt to receive the four 
thousand pounds he had inherited from his 
father ; in this year Mrs Constable also inherited 
four thousand pounds; and he was elected an 
Associate of the Royal Academy. It was in this 
year while at Bergholt that he wrote to his wife 
from a grateful and overflowing heart a letter of 
which the following is an extract : — " Everything 
seems full of blossom of some kind, and at every 
step I take, and on whatever subject I turn my 



CONSTABLE 67 

eyes, that sublime expression of the Scriptures, 
* I am the resurrection and the Hfe,' seems as if 
uttered near me." There spoke the true land- 
scape painter, the man of deep feeling, conscious 
that in his painting he was interpreting God's 
handiwork, and expressing in his chosen medium 
the miracle of growth, the eternal movement of 
Nature from birth to re-birth. When standing in 
that hall at the Victoria and Albert Museum 
devoted to his achievement — growth, growth, 
growth — from pencil sketch to completed picture, 
there are moments when those words of his seem 
uttered near to us. 

" Dedham Mill " may look to our spoilt modern 
eyes a little tame, but detach yourself from the 
present, drift into harmony with the picture, and 
you may perhaps invoke the spirit of the dead 
man who saw temperate beauty in this scene of 
his boyhood, and who tried to state his love and 
gratitude laboriously with paint and brushes — 
poor tools to express the living light and life of 
Nature. 

Two years later, in 1821, at the age of forty- 
five, he "painted "The Hay Wain," to which I 
have referred at length in the opening chapter. 
Perhaps some day when the re-organisation of 
the National Collections is complete, it will be 
found possible to hang the brilliant full-sized 



68 CONSTABLE 

sketch of "The Hay Wain" now at South 
Kensington alongside the finished picture in the 
National Gallery. In the rough magnificent 
sketch you will observe that he had already 
begun to use the palette-knife freely in putting 
on the colour, a practice to which he became 
more and more addicted. 

"The Hay Wain" established his fame; but 
Constable was not the man to sit down under 
success and repeat his triumphs in one particular 
method. In the interval between the painting of 
"The Hay Wain" and its exhibition in Paris, he 
produced " Salisbury from the Bishop's Garden," 
now in the South Kensington collection, wherein 
he attempted to represent the glitter of sunlight 
by spots of pure pigment which his friends called 
"Constable's snow." To us, accustomed to 
modern pictures of sunlight, the "spots and 
scumbles of pure pigment" in "Salisbury 
Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden" are hardly 
noticeable, but in 1823 they were an innovation, 
although not altogether a new discovery. 
Pinturicchio, in his frescoes in the library of Siena 
Cathedral, experimented in pointillism, and you 
may trace it, too, in some of the pictures by 
Vermeer of Delft. " Salisbury from the Bishop's 
Garden'* gave Constable considerable trouble. 
He was ill and his children were ill. "What 



PLATE VIII.— SALISBURY. National Gallery. 

A preliminary study, without the rainbow, for the large picture 
of " Salisbury from the Meadows," exhibited at the Royal Academy 
in 1831. It is larger than his usual sketches, but shows no anxiety. 
The hand following the eye stopped when the vision of the eye 
was recorded, when all the hurry of the wet glitter of the scene 
had been stated in broken pigment. 



CONSTABLE 71 

with anxiety, watching, nursing, and my own 
indisposition, I have not see the face of my easel 
since Christmas, and it is not the least of my 
troubles that the good Bishop's picture is not yet 
fit to be seen." Later he describes "SaHsbury 
from the Bishop's Garden " as " the most difficult 
subject in landscape I ever had upon my easel," 
adding that it "looks uncommonly well," and that 
" I have not flinched at the windows, buttresses, 
etc., but I have still kept to my grand organ 
colour, and have, as usual, made my escape in 
the evanescence of the Chiaroscuro." 

**The Lock," another of his well-known 
pictures, was purchased from the Royal Academy 
Exhibition of 1824 by Mr Morrison for **one 
hundred and fifty guineas, including the frame." 
The superb oil sketch for " The Lock " was sold 
at Christie's in 1901 for nineteen hundred guineas. 
It is an upright picture of sunshine and gusty 
wind, and represents a lock-keeper opening the 
gates for the passage of a boat. "My 'Lock* 
wrote Constable to Fisher, "is liked at the 
Academy, and indeed it forms a decided feature, 
and its light cannot be put out, because it is the 
light of Nature, the mother of all that is valuable 
in poetry, painting, or anything else where an 
appeal to the soul is required. . . . But my 
execution annoys most of them, and all the 



72 CONSTABLE 

scholastic ones. Perhaps the sacrifices I make for 
lightness and brightness are too great, but these 
things are the essence of landscape, and my ex- 
treme is better than white-lead and oil, and dado 
painting." Probably no other landscape painter 
has expressed the intention of his art as clearly in 
writing as with his brushes. Light! The light 
of Nature ! The mother of all that is valuable in 
painting! That was Constable's secret — the 
knowledge of light, a secret that was hidden 
from the eyes of worthy Sir George Beaumont. 
**The Leaping Horse" of 1825, to which 
reference has already been made, called by some 
his "grandest painting," reposes in the Diploma 
Gallery at Burlington House. Several changes 
were made in the picture after its exhibition 
at the Royal Academy, which the curious can 
verify by a study of the full-sized sketch at 
South Kensington. From this year onward 
the movement of Nature and the brilliancy of 
objects in sunlight intrigued him more and more, 
although his passion for light never reached the 
white-hot fervour of Turner in his latter years. 
For Turner the sunrise, a world almost too 
beautiful and evanescent to be real ; for Constable 
the noonday glow, the still heat haze, seen 
between cool, dark trees, hovering over a field of 
ripe corn, as in " The Cornfield," painted when he 



CONSTABLE 73 

was fifty — a typical Constable. Constable was 
pleased with "The Cornfield." Writing of it 
to Fisher he said: "It is not neglected in any 
part; the trees are more than usually studied, 
well defined as well as the stems; they are 
shaken by a pleasant and healthftil breeze at 
noon 

* While now a fresher gale 
Sweeping with shadowy gusts the fields of corn . . . .' " 

This picture, perhaps the best known and 
most popular of his works, was presented to the 
National Gallery in 1837, by an association of 
gentlemen, who purchased it of the painter's 
executors. Some of them wished to substitute 
for this gift the fine "Salisbury Cathedral from 
the Meadows" with the rainbow, of which the 
" Salisbury," No. 1814, in the National Gallery, is a 
study, but "the boldness of its execution" we are 
told "stood in its way," and the "Cornfield" was 
purchased instead. The association of gentle- 
men need not have been apprehensive that the 
"boldness of the execution" of "Salisbury from 
the Meadows " would have frightened succeeding 
generations. The Munich Secessionists would 
call it commonplace, and the most old-fashioned 
member of the selecting committee of a current 
Royal Academy Exhibition would see in it only a 
fine picture, forcibly painted but too insistent on 



/ 



74 CONSTABLE 

detail. The landscape point of view has changed 
since 1837. 

The magnificent *' Opening of Waterloo 
Bridge " which, to those who had not seen it in 
Sir Charles Tennant's collection, came as a 
revelation when shown at the Old Masters' 
Exhibition, gave Constable continuous trouble 
and anxiety. He was years over it, and *'he 
indulged in the vagaries of the palette-knife to 
an excess." It was not understood : it was not 
liked. **Very unfinished, sir," was the comment 
of his friend, Thomas Stothard, R. A. ; and, says 
LesHe, "the picture was generally pronounced 
a failure." This brilliant presentation of the 
King embarking at Whitehall stairs, the water 
dancing, the air fluttering with gay banners and 
the sails of bright and sumptuous barges, was 
hung next to a grey sea-piece by Turner, who 
promptly placed a bright spot of red lead in 
the foreground of his own grey picture. The 
vivacity of Constable's river fete lost something 
by that spot of vivid red. "Turner has been 
here and fired a gun," said Constable. The 
flash remained, although "in the last moments 
allowed for painting. Turner glazed the scarlet 
seal he had put upon his picture, and shaped 
it into a buoy." Considerable doubt has been 
thrown on Leslie's statement "that soon after 



CONSTABLE 75 

Constable's death the picture was toned to the 
aristocratic taste of the period by a coat of 
blacking." The picture bears no trace of a coat 
of mourning. 

In the somewhat solemn and simple "Valley 
Farm," painted in 1835, two years before his 
death, Constable returned to the scenes of his 
boyhood, to Willy Lott's house on the bank of the 
Stour. His hand and eye have lost something 
of their grip and freshness, but his purpose is as 
firm as ever. " I have preserved God Almighty's 
daylight," he wrote, "which is enjoyed by all 
mankind, excepting only the lovers of old dirty 
canvas, perished pictures at a thousand guineas 
each, cart grease, tar, and snuff of candle." 
The old Adam, you perceive, was still strong in 
him. 

" The Cenotaph," now in the National Gallery, 
was exhibited in the Royal Academy of 1836 — the 
subject being the cenotaph erected by Sir George 
Beaumont in memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 
a tribute of affection and respect. It is some- 
what heavy in treatment. Did Constable, I 
wonder, realise that his work was nearly done? 
Was the uninspiriting "Cenotaph" in his mind 
when, in the autumn of this year, he wrote so 
generously about the pictures that his great 
contemporary was exhibiting: — "Turner has 



76 CONSTABLE 

outdone himself; he seems to paint with tinted 
steam, so evanescent and so airy." 

Constable's last work was " Arundel Mill and 
Castle," upon which he was engaged on the day 
of his death, 31st March 1837. 

His pictures are familiar to many who have 
not seen all the originals, through David 
Lucas's mezzotints. The first series of twenty 
mezzotints was published in 1833 under the title, 
''Various Subjects of Landscape, characteristic 
of English Scenery, principally intended to 
display the Phenomena of the Chiar'oscuro of 
Nature." Constable devoted much attention to 
the enterprise during the remainder of his life, 
inspired to make it as fine as possible by the 
example of Claude's "Liber Veritatis" and 
Turner's "Liber Studiorum." But its "duration, 
its expense, its hopelessness of remuneration" 
oppressed him. "It harasses my days and 
disturbs my rest at nights" he wrote in 1831. 
Constable took things hardly, very hardly, after 
his wife's death in 1828. 



CHAPTER VI 

HIS PERSONALITY AND OPINIONS 

THE personality of Constable was not 
romantic. In writing of him one has no 
moods of wonderment or bafflement, and 
the pen is not tempted to flights of wonder or 
fancy. The life of Turner might inspire a poem ; 
but plain prose is the only vehicle for a considera- 
tion of the life of Constable. He was a sane, 
level-headed man compact of common-sense and 
practicality, a man of one great, embracive idea : 
that having studied the science of picture-making 
from the earlier masters, the landscape painter 
must learn from Nature and not from the 
derivative pictures of his contemporaries. 
Constable pursued that course with the single- 
heartedness of a man who devotes his life to 
some great commercial undertaking. Indeed 
the portraits of Constable might represent a 
prosperous and cultured banker, especially those 
of his later years, were it not for the full, obser- 
vant eye that you feel surveys a wider domain 

77 



78 CONSTABLE 

than Lombard Street. Religious in the true sense, 
dutiful, humble before the mysteries of things; 
old-fashioned in the true sense, a lover and a 
quoter of good poetry and of the Bible, he had 
on occasion a sharp and shrewd tongue, but the 
sting was salved by the absolute sincerity of his 
intention. Leslie devotes considerable space to 
a record of Constable's opinions and sayings, 
many of which have been quoted in these pages. 
Of a certain contemporary he said — ''More 
over-bearing meekness I never met with in 
any one man." Of his own pictures he said — 
"They will never be popular, for they have 
no handling. But I do not see any handhng in 
Nature." 

Here is a saying about his art which sums 
up the whole tendency of his Hfe — "Whatever 
may be thought of my art, it is my own ; and 
I would rather possess a freehold, though but 
a cottage, than live in a palace belonging to 
another." And here is his comment on the 
unintelligent connoisseurship of his time — "The 
old rubbish of art, the musty, commonplace, 
wretched pictures which gentlemen collect, 
hang up, and display to their friends, may be 
compared to Shakespeare's — 

* Beggarly account of empty boxes, 
Alligators stuffed,' etc. 



CONSTABLE 79 

Nature is anything but this, either in poetry, 
painting, or in the fields." 

The lectures on Landscape Painting that he 
delivered at the Royal Institution in Albemarle 
Street, at the Hampstead Assembly Rooms, and 
at Worcester were never written, although an 
abstract of the first was found among his papers. 
He spoke from brief notes and made much use 
of a number of copies and engravings affixed to 
the walls. The notes taken by Leslie and 
embodied in his Life of Constable are the only 
record we have apart from the abstract of the 
first lecture. The belittlers of Claude should 
make a note of Constable's idolatry for him: — 
" In Claude's landscape all is lovely — all amiable 
— all is amenity and repose ; — the calm sunshine 
of the heart. He carried landscape, indeed, to 
perfection, that is, human perfection." Constable 
selected four works as marking four memorable 
points in the history of landscape — Titian's 
"Peter Martyr," Poussin's "Deluge," Rubens' 
"Rainbow," and Rembrandt's "Mill." In the 
choice of the Rubens and the Rembrandt 
everybody must concur. As Constable never 
visited Italy he can only have known the " Peter 
Martyr" from engravings. It was destroyed by 
fire in 1867, but a copy exists at S. Giovanni 
Paolo in Venice. Constable had the courage of 



8o CONSTABLE 

his opinions, and of all his opinions the most 
astonishing is his strong disapproval of a 
national collection of pictures. In 1822 he 
wrote — "should there be a National Gallery 
(which is talked of) there will be an end of the 
art in poor old England, and she will become, in 
all that relates to painting, as much a nonentity 
as every other country that has one. The reason 
is plain ; the manufacturers of pictures are then 
made the criterions of perfection, instead of 
Nature." 

As a lecturer Constable seems to have relied 
in a great measure on the inspiration of the 
moment. Leslie also records the charm of a 
most agreeable voice, although pitched some- 
what too lov/, and the play of his very expressive 
countenance. His survey of the history of 
landscape painting closed with an eulogy of 
Wilson, Gainsborough, Cozens, and Girtin, and I 
may close with a brief passage, essential Con- 
stable, from the lecture delivered at Hampstead 
on 25th July 1836. "The landscape painter must 
walk in the fields with a humble mind. No 
arrogant man was ever permitted to see Nature 
in all her beauty. If I may be allowed to 
use a very solemn quotation, I would say most 
emphatically to the student — * Remember now 
thy Creator in the days of thy youth.'" 

The plates are printed by Bemrosk <5h Sons, Ltd., Derby and London 
The text at the Ballantyne Press, Edinburgh 



PATIH 3UP 



JUL 8 « 

JUL If -f 
JUL it ^ 






JUL 19 ^ 

// / 1 






JUL 2^6 % 

1 ' ' 




•■ 


















/ 


vr'^A- 




t / 



'y^T' 



•=«*