In Review

Constable: a Portrait by James Hamilton – a warm-hearted biography

This illuminating book suggests that we have got the English painter all wrong

John Constable, the 19th century landscape artist, has a somewhat fusty reputation, said Laura Freeman in The Times. His work is viewed as quaintly old-fashioned, while the phrase “Constable country” – originally a reference to the Suffolk countryside he painted – has become a catch-all for a “biscuit tin” version of England with “tidily herded” sheep and “neatly stacked” corn. Yet in this illuminating and insightful biography, James Hamilton suggests that we have got Constable all wrong.

The painter, he says, was really “a radical” who defied the expectations of his time by painting landscapes rather than portraits. Moreover, he pioneered many of the techniques – broken colour, modern subjects, an obsessive focus on the play of light – that would become bedrocks of impressionism. Constable, Hamilton writes, possessed an “experimental burn” to paint the skies and seasons as no one had before. He was, in short, an “overlooked revolutionary”.

While that may be an apt description of Constable the painter, it certainly isn’t true of Constable the man, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. A bigoted Tory with insular views, he staunchly refused to go abroad, even when his work was lionised in Paris. He was also “sarcastic, gossipy, tight with money and abusive of other artists’ work”. The paintings of J.M.W. Turner, his main contemporary rival, were, he said, “only fit to be spat upon”. He once compared a William Collins landscape to a “large cow turd”.

Constable was, at least, a devoted family man, said Michael Bird in The Daily Telegraph. He “adored” his wife Maria, and her death from tuberculosis aged 41, eleven months after giving birth to their seventh child, left him genuinely distraught.

Largely because of the “brazen experimentation” of his work, England was slow to appreciate Constable’s greatness, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in the Daily Mail. For years, he was “obliged to take on portrait commissions to feed his family”, and he was only elected to the Royal Academy aged 43 (Turner was admitted in his mid-20s). Yet he did, as Hamilton aptly observes, become a “legend in his own landscape”.

In 1832, aged 56, Constable was crossing the river valley at Dedham, in Suffolk, when he praised the landscape to a fellow traveller. “Yes, sir,” the traveller replied. “This is Constable’s country.” The painter replied – “I am John Constable” – which must have been deeply “gratifying”. More than anything, as this delightful and warm-hearted biography shows, he yearned to be “appreciated”.

W & N 472pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Constable book cover
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