John Constable - His Life
( Originally Published 1909 )
MUCH that is best in modern landscape painting can be traced back to its origin in the Eastern Counties of England, whence so many of our foremost workers in this field have sprung. In the narrow strip of country between the rivers Stour and Orwell two of England's greatest painters first saw the light—Gainsborough and Constable. Their youth and early manhood were spent in the valley of the Stour, one of the most lovely districts in East Anglia, where the rich corn-lands stretch down to the banks of the slowly-moving river, and the narrow lanes wander up and down between high hedges, bordered with a luxuriant growth of wild flowers, and noble trees overhead; where the white farmhouses and cottages, with their high-pitched roofs of thatch, stand amid the fields, or in sheltered nooks under a hill-side crowned with a windmill, while every few miles some village, with the church spire rising above the quaint houses, gives a human interest to the prospect.
The scenery is quiet and peaceful, but at each fresh turn some charming view is opened up. It is, in fact, in all ways an ideal training ground for the artist; and it was this fair county of Suffolk which first made painters of both Gainsborough and Constable, as they themselves so often acknowledged; while it was the close and constant study of nature as seen at their very doors which laid the firm foundations of their future excellence in painting.
John Constable was born at East Bergholt, in Suffolk, on June 11th, 1776, and it was within a radius of a few miles from this village that he found the subjects of the greater number of his most celebrated pictures.
The family came originally from Yorkshire, but his great-grandfather moved south, and settled as a farmer at Bures, on the border line between Suffolk and Essex. His father, Golding Constable, was a man of some means, holding considerable property in the district. He was a miller by trade, owning the water mills at Flat-ford and Dedham, and two windmills near East Bergholt, all of them familiar friends to lovers of Constable's landscapes. At the latter place he built himself, in 1774, a substantial house. He married a Miss Ann Watts, and had a family of three sons and three daughters.
His second son, John, was so delicate at birth that he was not expected to live, but, happily, he soon grew into a strong and healthy child. When seven he was sent to boarding school some fifteen miles from home, going later on to Lavenham, and finishing his education in the Dedham Grammar School under the Rev. Dr. Grimwood.
Before leaving school, at about the age of seventeen, his strong desire to follow the career of a painter had become evident to his masters, and on his return home he continued to spend every moment of his spare time in the practice of drawing and painting. His father, not unnaturally, was strongly opposed to his becoming a professional artist. In those days art, and more particularly landscape art, was looked upon as a most precarious method of gaining a livelihood. Mr. Constable wished him to enter the church, but as nothing would induce the young artist to consider this, it was decided to make a miller of him.
Constable, always a most affectionate and dutiful son, made up his mind to fall in with his parents' wishes, in spite of an ever-increasing passion for art. For about a year he worked with a will at the business, thus gaining that intimate knowledge of the construction and working of both wind and water mills, which he afterwards put to such good use in his painting.
He continued, however, whenever he could steal the time, to study and sketch in the lanes and fields round East Bergholt, and along the banks of the Stour, just as Gainsborough, who was at the height of his fame in London in the year Constable was born, was in the habit of doing in his youth round about Sudbury, only fourteen miles away on the same river. Constable found one other sincere lover of art in the village this was John Dunthorne, the local plumber and glazier, a man of superior intelligence, who gave up every spare moment he could snatch from his trade to sketching from nature. The two became inseparable friends, working together out of doors and in a small room they hired as a studio. Constable had now grown up into a tall, good-looking young man, of remarkable muscular strength; his regular features, fresh complexion, and fine dark eyes earning for him the distinction of being known throughout the neighbourhood as "the handsome miller."
About this time he made the acquaintance of Sir George Beaumont, one of the leading amateurs and connoisseurs of his day, whose mother lived at Dedham. Sir George was pleased with some copies the young artist had made of Raphael's Cartoons, and lent him some water-colour drawings of Girtin's to study, and also showed him his favourite Claude, the Hagar now in the National Gallery, which he carried with him everywhere. Constable always regarded this first introduction to the great French painter as an epoch in his life, while his admiration for Girtin was lasting, and had an undoubted effect upon his art. Without in any way neglecting his duties at the mills, it became so evident to his relations that his whole heart was set upon painting as a career, that in 1795 his father allowed him to go to London for opportunities of further study, though with no definite under-standing that henceforth he would be permitted to follow art professionally. He took with him a letter of introduction to Joseph Farington, R.A., a now forgotten landscape painter, trained in the school of Richard Wilson, who gave him much good advice, and predicted that his style of treating scenery would one day "form a distinct feature in the art." He also received considerable help and encouragement from John Thomas Smith, the engraver, known as "Antiquity " Smith, who, among other things, taught him the rudiments of etching.
For the next few years his time was spent between London and Suffolk. In 1797 his father lost a clerk who had been many years with him, and Constable seems to have made a final but useless attempt to put aside all thoughts of painting except as a recreation. His mother wrote to Smith that they hoped he would now attend to business, by which he will please his father, and ensure his own respectability and comfort;" but in spite of many praiseworthy efforts, fate was too strong for him, and in the end he was allowed to renounce the mill for the easel.
On February 4th, 1799, he was admitted as a student in the Royal Academy Schools, and took rooms at No. 23, Cecil Street, Strand; but he got away into the country whenever he could. In this year he was at Ipswich, and writes: " It is a most delightful country for a painter. I fancy I see Gainsborough in every tree." In the summer of 1800 he spent some weeks in solitary study among the oak trees of Helmingham Park, which, later in life, he made the scene of one of his finest pictures. In the following year he went on a sketching tour in Derbyshire. In 1802 he first exhibited at the Royal Academy a small "Landscape," and it is probable that one or two earlier contributions, including a view of Flatford Mill, were rejected. This latter picture he showed to Benjamin West, who consoled him by saying, " Don't be disheartened, young man, we shall hear of you again; you must have loved nature very much before you could have painted this." West probably did him good service, too, by persuading him to refuse a situation as drawing-master in a school, which Dr. Fisher, Rector of Langham, and afterwards Bishop of Salisbury, procured for him in 1802, telling him that if he accepted the post he must abandon all hope of distinction as a painter.
In the same year he writes to Dunthorne : "For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeking the truth at second hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men. I am come to a determination to make no idle visits this summer, nor to give up my time to commonplace people. 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 room enough for a natural painter."
In 1803 he exhibited two "Landscapes," and two "Studies from Nature," and in April made a trip from London to Deal in an East Indiaman. In the following year he attempted a new form of art, an altarpiece for Brantham Church, near Bergholt. It was a composition of life-size figures, the subject being " Christ Blessing little Children," but it had little if any merit, and after one other attempt of the kind he wisely abandoned all thought of historical or sacred art.
In 1806, he spent two months in the English Lake District, making many large sketches, both in colour and black and white, some of which he exhibited in the following year, although he never attempted to paint a picture from them. The grandeur and solitude of the mountains overpowered him, and he turned again with de-light to the quieter scenery of his native Suffolk. About this time he found some remunerative occupation in making a number of copies of family portraits, chiefly by Sir Joshua Reynolds, for the Earl of Dysart, and for several years he undertook work of this kind, which, although it kept him from the fields, was of undoubted service in improving both his sense of colour and of light and shade, as well as bringing in a little needful money. He continued to exhibit every year at the Royal Academy and British Gallery, and in 18o9 produced his second and last altarpiece, a single half-figure of " Our Saviour" for Neyland Church, which was in all ways a better performance than his first one, but gave no promise of distinction in this direction. He was now on terms of intimate friendship with such painters as Jackson, Stothard, and Wilkie, sitting to the latter more than once for characters in his pictures.
Each year marked an improvement in his art, although it was too unobtrusive to attract attention in the exhibition-room. Simplicity of treatment was a marked characteristic of his small landscapes, as well as a fine feeling for the beauty of nature. No one, however, showed any inclination to buy them, and his relations urged him to keep to portrait-painting as the only branch of art that paid; but his love of landscape was too strong, and although he occasionally painted portraits throughout his whole career, he was not uniformly successful. Though always willing to listen to the advice of others, he was most tenacious of purpose, and nothing could turn him away from the ideal he had set himself. "You know," he writes, "1 have always succeeded best with my native scenes. They have always charmed me, and I hope they always will. I have now a path marked out very distinctly for myself, and I am desirous of pursuing it uninterruptedly."
In 1811 his friends became anxious about the state of his health, which was far from good. Love was at the bottom of it. He had become deeply attached to Miss Maria Bicknell, whose father, Mr. Charles Bicknell, was solicitor to the Admiralty. He had known her as a little girl as far back as r800, as she was in the habit of paying visits to her maternal grandfather, Dr. Rhudde, the rector of Bergholt. The lady's relations, however, were strongly opposed to the match, more particularly Dr. Rhudde, who undoubtedly had reason on his side, as Constable's prospects were far from brilliant, and in those days the artistic profession was regarded with some suspicion by many otherwise worthy people. Miss Bicknell's father was of a more pliable disposition, and might finally have given his consent, if it had not been for his fear that his daughter would lose all prospects of inheriting her grand-father's fortune, which was a large one.
The lovers were kept apart for five years, years of anxiety and to some extent of unhappiness, more especially to Constable, who was ardently in love, and had great difficulty in suppressing his feelings. Their correspondence during this period of waiting is given in full in the " Life " of the artist by C. R. Leslie, R.A., and it makes very charming reading. There is a delightfully old-world tone about these letters which makes them more fascinating than a novel. The lady was more cautious and practical than her painter. Having been strictly and correctly brought up, she felt that it was impossible to take any step against the wishes of her parents, and she saw clearly that marriage without means might end in disaster. It is impossible to attempt here any adequate quotation from these very real, if old-fashioned, love letters, which tell a story of constancy and fidelity unusually charming.
Throughout this period of uncertainty his health suffered continually, and he was advised to live as much as possible in the country ; but he was busy with copies of pictures for Lady Heathcote and Lady Louisa Manners, and also painted as many portraits as he could, with the desire of showing his friends that to follow art did not necessarily mean starvation. Happily for him, he had already formed the great friendship of his life,—with the Rev. John Fisher, afterwards Archdeacon, who was Chaplain to his uncle, the Bishop of Salisbury. The two men became the closest of friends, although Fisher was sixteen years Constable's junior, and to the artist, at least, this friendship was invaluable in many ways.
In 1813 his pictures in the Academy were Landscape. Boys Fishing, and Landscape: Morning. In the next year he was joined by John Dunthorne, the son of his old friend, who came to London as his assistant. His art, however, still met with little appreciation, so that it was an agreeable surprise to him to sell two pictures, the larger one, A Lock, to Mr. James Carpenter. In the summer he visited both Suffolk and Essex, staying in the latter county at Feering, near Kelvedon, and finding good subjects for his pencil, notably at Hadleigh, where the ruined castle greatly attracted him. In this year, too, he painted, entirely out of doors, the picture called Boat Building, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a very fine example of his work at this period, perfect in its accuracy of detail, and full of sunshine and atmosphëric truth.
In 1815 Constable's mother died. He was devotedly attached to her, and felt the blow very deeply. Only a few days afterwards Miss Bicknell also lost her mother. In the autumn his father was attacked by serious illness, and in order to be near him, Constable spent some months at East Bergholt. Mr. Constable died in the following May; but the year, which began so sadly, was to end in a much happier fashion, when the constancy and devotion of five weary years were at length rewarded. Patience has its limits even for so tender-natured a man as Constable, and he now urged the lady so strongly to marry him in spite of family opposition that she gave way. They were married at St. Martin's Church, on October 2nd, 1816, by his friend Fisher, who came up to town for the purpose, and the honeymoon was spent in his rectory at Osmington. Mr. Bicknell soon forgave them, and though Dr. Rhudde gave no sign that he was reconciled to the match, he left his grand-daughter, on his death in 1819, a very welcome and unexpected legacy of £4,000.
They began their married life in a small house in Keppel Street, Russell Square, where their two eldest children, John and Maria, were born. Their union seems to have been an ideal one, and Constable's art was never more perfect than at this time, though still but little appreciated by the public. It was not until a later period of his life that he aimed at those grand and evanescent effects of nature, which to-day cause his pictures to be so highly prized; at this time he was mainly occupied with her more simple aspects, which he rendered with a sympathy, accuracy and sincerity which have rarely been surpassed.
The year 1819 was an important one for him.
He exhibited at the Academy, among other pictures, his Scene on the River Stour, a placid representation of a serene gray morning of summer, better known as The White Horse, the largest and most important canvas he had as yet produced. It was, no doubt, one of the chief causes of his election as an Associate of the Royal Academy in the following November. His anxiety as to ways and means was also greatly relieved, not only by his wife's legacy from her grandfather, but by his own share of his father's property, which also amounted to £4,000. Fisher, too, proved to be a real friend by purchasing his White Horse, thus rendering him a service of the utmost importance at this turning-point of his life. The Archdeacon, who was a man of taste and judgment, as well as of sound common sense, was the first to thoroughly appreciate Constable's art, and he was unceasing in his encouragement, and liberal of help with his purse. Shortly after buying The White Horse, he purchased another large picture for one hundred guineas, as a present to a friend. This was the Stratford Mill on the Stour, with boys fishing in the foreground, which at Mr. Huth's sale in 1895, fetched 8,500 guineas.
The first mention of Hampstead is made in Constable's correspondence in 1820, in which year he settled his family on the Heath, at No. 2, Lower Terrace, though himself continuing to work in his studio in Keppel Street; and in the following year he exhibited his first picture of Hampstead Heath. He also sent his third six-foot canvas, under the title of Landscape: Noon, the celebrated picture, now in the National Gallery, known as The Hay-Wain. In 1822, feeling the want of larger rooms, he moved to 35, Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, recently vacant through the death of Farington, whose advice he had found of some service years before. He still spent every moment in study and painting. Leslie possessed a number of large studies of skies, all done about this season, with written notes as to wind, weather, and colour, which show how he was always striving to improve his art by incessant study of the most fleeting natural effects. In this year he painted, for the Bishop of Salisbury, the extremely beautiful view of the Cathedral from the Palace Gardens, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. (See p. 56.)
In the autumn of 1823 he paid a visit to Sir George Beaumont at Coleorton Hall, and stayed for a month, the longest time he ever spent away from home. While there he chiefly occupied his time in copying the Claudes and other pictures by the old masters in which his host's collection was so rich. "The Claudes, the Claudes, are all, all, I can think of here!" he writes to his wife. His opinions of the old masters coincided, to a great extent, with those of Sir George, but they differed very materially on many points of art and technique, so that warm but amicable discussions had frequent place. Sir George, whose " brown tree " has rendered him immortal, thought Constable much too daring in the methods he adopted to obtain the quality of freshness in his pictures. On one occasion he recommended the colour of an old Cremona fiddle as a good model for the tone which should Ç prevail in a landscape. Constable's only answer was to place the instrument on the green lawn in front of the house. At another time came the now famous remark, " Do you not find it very difficult to determine where to place your brown tree?" "Not at all," was the artist's prompt answer, "for I never put such a thing into a picture in my life."
In 1824 he exhibited only one picture in the Academy, A Boat Passing a Lock, a scene close to Flatford Mill, and one constantly painted by him. It formed a decided feature of the exhibition, and received more praise than as a rule fell to his works. " Its light cannot be put out," he wrote to Fisher, "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 scholastic ones. Perhaps the sacrifices I make for lightness and brightness are too great; but these things are the essence of landscape, and any extreme is better than white lead, and dado- painting."
The most noteworthy event of 1824 was the exhibition of some of his pictures in Paris, which brought him more fame and recognition on the continent than he had ever received at home. Some French dealer or agent had been in negotiation with him for a year or more, and in the end he carried off the Hay-Wain and The Bridge for the sum of £250, Constable throwing in a small picture of Yarmouth into the bargain. The two larger pictures were exhibited in the Louvre, where they had an immediate success with the painters, although many of the critics were annoyed by the freshness of the treatment, and the newness of his outlook on nature. In France the revolt against the waning classical school, with its lifelessness and over-smoothness, was just beginning, and Constable's pictures came as a revelation to more than one artist who was striving to get back to nature. Eugène Delacroix, in particular, was so impressed by them, that, before the opening day, he almost entirely repainted his Massacre de Scio, which was one of the great sensations of the exhibition. A friend wrote to Con-stable from Paris, that he had created a division in the school of the landscape painters. " You are accused of carelessness by those who acknowledge 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. I saw one man draw another to your pictures with the expression, ` Look at these landscapes by an Englishman—the ground appears to be covered with dew.' " He was awarded a gold medal, and an attempt was made to purchase The Hay-Wain for the nation. In the following year his White Horse was exhibited at Lille, and gained for him a second gold medal.
In 1825, S. W. Reynolds began to engrave The Lock, but did not live to complete it. The engraver wrote of this picture that it was " true to nature, seen and arranged with a professor's taste and judgment. The execution shows in every part a hand of experience; masterly with-out rudeness, and complete without littleness. The colouring is sweet, fresh, and healthy; bright not gaudy, but deep and clear. Take it for all in all, since the days of Gainsborough and Wilson, no landscape has been painted with so much truth and originality, so much art, so little artifice." The artist himself, in writing privately to so intimate a friend as Fisher, when he felt that he could give natural expression to his real feelings about his own art, says : " My ` Lock ' is now on my easel; it is silvery, windy and delicious; all health, and the absence of anything stagnant, and is wonderfully got together; the print will be fine."
His picture of 1825 was the Canal Scene, better known as The Leming Horse, from the horse in the foreground, with a boy on its back, which is leaping over one of the barriers which are placed across the towing-path along the Stour to prevent the cattle straying. In preparation for this picture he made two large studies, on six-foot canvases, one of which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The picture itself a very splendid work which found no purchaser, is in the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy. In the following year he was at work on The Cornfield, one of his most perfect pictures (see p. 59), and also on a subject which he repeated a number of times, the best-known example being The Glebe Farm in the National Gallery, a scene at Langham, in which he departed widely from exact topographical truth.
In 1827 his family had increased to six, three sons and three daughters, and he settled permanently in Well Walk, Hampstead, letting the upper part of his town residence. His affection for breezy Hampstead had grown very deep. "Our little drawing room," he writes, "commands a view unsurpassed in Europe—from Westminster Abbey to Gravesend. The dome of St. Paul's in the air seems to realize Michael Angelo's words on seeing the Pantheon: `I will build such a thing in the sky.' We see the woods and lofty grounds of the East Saxons to the north-east." Some of his happiest days were spent in this house and its neighbourhood. Here his last child, Lionel Bicknell, was born on January 2nd, 1828. Other leading events of this year were the success of his large upright picture of Dedham Vale in the Academy, and the death of Mr. Bicknell, who left his daughter a fortune of twenty thousand pounds. "Now," said the artist to Fisher, "I shall stand before a six-foot canvas with a mind at ease, thank God!"
Unhappily his mind was not at ease for long. Throughout the year his wife was seriously ill, and though she seemed to be getting better during the summer, there was no hope; for her disease was consumption, of which she died on November 23rd, 1828. The blow was a terrible one, from which he never completely recovered. Their marriage had been ideal in its happiness, and Constable was never the same man during the remainder of his life. He brought his children back to the house in Charlotte Street, and only retained the one in Well Walk as an occasional residence. In the middle of a very sad letter to Leslie, written in the following January, he says: " I have been ill, but am endeavouring to get to work again, and could I get afloat on a canvas of six feet, I might have a chance of being carried from myself. I have received a commission to paint a mermaid for a sign to an inn in Warwickshire. This is encouraging, and affords no small solace after my previous labours in landscape for twenty years."
On February 10th, 1829, he was elected an Academician. He had waited a long time for this recognition on the part of his fellow artists, and any pleasure he felt was embittered by the thought that it came too late for his wife to share the distinction with him. " It has been delayed until I am solitary," he said, "and cannot impart it." Probably no painter of equal genius was less known in his native country than Constable. When Wilkie saw his pictures in Paris he was indignant at the injustice of withholding full Academic honours from the painter of such splendid canvases. Leslie tells a story which shows how little his original art was understood or appreciated by his fellow Academicians. When he first served on the Hanging Committee, a small picture of his ( Water Meadows near Salisbury, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) which had been placed among the " outsiders' " contributions by mistake, was rejected by the majority of his colleagues, only one of them crying, "No, stop a bit! I rather like that. Why not say `doubtful?" When Constable acknowledged it to be his, the Council at once saw its merits, but he refused to have it hung. In a letter to Leslie about his picture Hadleigh Castle, just sent in to the Academy, he says, "I am grievously nervous about it, as I am still smarting under my election." He was, in fact, regarded by his fellows as a painter of the humblest class of landscape, and even the President, Sir Thomas Lawrence, seemed to think that he ought to be very grateful for his election, when so many meritorious painters of history and "high art" were left outside. Constable, on the other hand, both highly sensitive and bitterly sarcastic, did not disguise from the President that he considered it to be an act of bare justice rather than of favour.
The Hadleigh Castle received scant praise at the hands of the newspaper critics. On varnishing day the irrepressible Chantrey, after telling Constable that its foreground was too cold, seized the palette from his unwilling hand and passed a strong glaze of asphaltum all over that part of it. Constable, who stood behind him, said in great alarm to Leslie, "There goes all my dew!" and promptly removed it when the sculptor's back was turned.
About 1829 he began to prepare his English Landscape for publication, having secured David Lucas as engraver. During the rest of his life he spent infinite pains and labour over this publication. In spite of so fine and sympathetic a mezzo-tinter as Lucas, it was by no means a financial success, and was a source of extreme anxiety and worry to the artist almost from the first. It was issued in parts, under the title of "Various Subjects of Landscape characteristic of English Scenery, principally intended to display the Phenomena of Chiaroscuro of Nature," and consisted of twenty mezzotints, in five parts, and was completed in 1833. It was followed by another series of fifteen plates, called " English Landscape." Both series, with a few extra plates (forty in all), were published in a single volume by H. G. Bohn, in 1855, under the title of " English Landscape Scenery." Lucas also executed magnificent engravings, on a larger scale, of The Cornfield, The Lock, Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, and some others.
In 1830 his principal pictures were the Dell in Helmingham Park and a View of Hampstead Heath. In the following year he was Visitor in the Academy Life School. He took his duties very seriously. Every figure he posed was taken from some well-known picture of a great master. He began with Raphael's Eve, followed by two from Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, and he always managed, by the aid of bushes and foliage, to give each figure some kind of landscape back-ground. He dressed his " Eve " in a bower of laurel, which he called his " Garden of Eden," and his men were twice stopped by the police, as garden-robbers, when coming from Hampstead with the greenery for it.
He suffered constantly from ill-health during these last years, especially in the spring, when he was often behindhand with his picture for the Academy, which resulted in over-work, irregular meals, and lack of proper exercise. In one of his many letters to Lucas he says, " I have made a great impression on my large canvas. Beechey was here yesterday, and said, ' 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 !' so that you have evidence on oath of my being about a fine picture, and that I am looking ill." This canvas, which Sir William may be said to have damned with no faint praise, was the famous Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, sometimes called The Rainbow, now belonging to Mrs. Ashton, which was in the Academy of 1831, together with a smaller one of Yarmouth Pier. The former was christened " Chaos " by one of the newspapers.
Although he was seriously ill during the winter, and suffered from acute rheumatism, he was able to finish his Opening of Waterloo Bridge in time for the Exhibition of 1832. This picture, which represents royalty embarking in state from White-hall Stairs on June 18th, 1817, in the midst of a flotilla of gaily-decked barges, with many flags fluttering in the breeze, had been in hand for a long time. He had started upon it in 1819, and often took it up and laid it aside again. It probably caused him more trouble and worry than any of his pictures. He had already completed' more than one smaller version of it, one of them, which is in Mr. Humphry Roberts' collection, being painted from a point much closer to the bridge than in the larger version of 1832, which belongs to Sir Charles Tennant. It was a subject out of his usual line, and though he was tempted to essay it by the expanse of cloud and rippling water, the absence of any of his favourite rural associations made it in some ways distasteful to him. In it Constable, in order to obtain that "sparkle" in the local colour for which he was always searching, made perhaps his most vigorous use of the palette-knife, the instrument with which, as he himself said, he had cut his own throat."
In this year he lost two of his oldest friends, Archdeacon Fisher, and John Dunthorne the younger, who succumbed to rapid consumption. The latter he had helped in a number of ways, and had recently established him as a picture cleaner in London. These deaths, following so closely on that of his wife, made the blank in his life still greater.
In 1833 he was induced to give a lecture on "An Outline of the History of Landscape Painting," in the Hampstead Assembly Room, and this he afterwards developed into a course of four, which he delivered in London. In the winter he had another severe attack of rheumatic fever, which lasted for so long a time that he was unable to exhibit any important picture in 1834. He had recently made some new and valuable friends in Mr. Evans, his doctor, Mr. Purton of Hampstead, and Mr. George Constable of Arun-del, a namesake only. He visited the latter in 1834, drawing fresh inspiration from the scenery of the Sussex Downs, and from Arundel he went for a fortnight as Lord Egremont's guest at Petworth. Leslie, who was a fellow visitor at the latter place, records that " his dressing table was covered with flowers, feathers of birds, and pieces of bark with lichens adhering to them, which he brought home for the sake of their beautiful tints;" and while at Mr. George Constable's he collected in bottles specimens of coloured sand and earth, and many fragments of stone. In passing some slimy posts near an old mill, he said to his host, " I wish you could cut off and send their tops to me."
His single contribution to the Academy of 1835 was the well-known Valley Farm or Willy Lot's House, which was done from an early sketch, and pleased even the critics. It was purchased by Mr. Vernon, and is now in the National Gallery. Mr. Vernon, when he saw it on the easel, asked if it were painted for any particular person. "Yes, sir," replied the artist, "it is painted for a very particular person—the per-son for whom I have all my life painted." Speaking of this picture to Mr. George Constable, he says: " I have kept my brightness without my spottiness, and I have preserved God Almighty's daylight, 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." When it came back from the Academy he had another turn at it before sending it to its owner, and writes: " Oiling out, making out, polishing, scraping, etc., seem to have agreed with it exceedingly. The `sleet' and `snow' have disappeared, leaving in their places, silver, ivory, and a little gold."
In 1836 his chief picture was The Cenotaph (see p. 62), one of the few instances in which he chose a scene in late autumn for his theme. He also exhibited a large drawing of Stonehenge, of fine quality, which is now at South Kensington. He was much busied, too, with the preparation of the four lectures to be delivered at the Royal Institution. In December he wrote to Leslie that Mr. Sheepshanks was going to purchase his Glebe Farm, or Green Lane, "one of the pictures on which I rest my little pretensions to futurity."
In February, 1837, he had begun to work on his Arundel Mill, which he intended to make his best picture. " It is safe for the exhibition," he writes to his namesake, "as we have as much as six weeks good." But it was never to be finished, and was hung in the Academy after his death in its incomplete state. In March he was again a visitor in the Life Schools. On Thursday, March 30, he attended an Academy meeting, and walked home with Leslie afterwards. He appeared in good health, and they parted laughing. During the whole of the next day he was at work on the Arundel Mill, and though he did not seem well, it was put down to the strain of painting against time. He went out in the evening on some business in connection with the Artists' Benevolent Fund, and after a hearty supper went to bed. Later on he awoke in great pain, but thought so little of it, that he would not allow his family to send for a doctor. He became rapidly worse, however, and was dead in less than half an hour after the first attack. No trace of disease was discovered at the post mortem, and the extreme pain he suffered could only be attributed to acute indigestion.
He was buried at Hampstead by the side of his wife. It was proposed by a number of his friends and admirers that one of his pictures should be purchased for presentation to the National Gallery, and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows was selected, as being from its "magnitude, subject, and grandeur of treatment, the best suited for the collection." It was thought, however, by the majority of the subscribers, that this great work was too bold in treatment to meet the public approval, and in the end the beautiful Cornfield was chosen.
Constable's character was stamped with both simplicity and nobility. He was faithful in all ways, both to his friends, to the memory of his wife, and to his art. No disappointment, no ad-verse criticism, could move him an inch from the path which he thought the right one to pursue as a landscape painter. His disappointments—and he had many of them—he always bore with a brave front, and with none of that continual railing against fate and his fellow men which has marred the character of more than one unappreciated artist of far less capability than his. He had faith in himself, and was true to his ideals. The chief fault in his character was his bitterly sarcastic humour, which made him many enemies. He expressed his opinions on art and on the work of his fellow painters with a freedom and independence which deeply offended, and his firm belief in his own powers was set down as vanity. Fisher, writing to him in 1823, gives an amusing appreciation of one side of his character. "Where real business is to be done," he says, " you are the most energetic and punctual of men. In smaller matters, such as putting on your breeches, you are apt to lose time in deciding which leg shall go in first." His nature was a benevolent one, and he was constantly engaged in acts of quiet kindness and help, while the sufferings of the poor made a strong appeal to his sensitive temperament. He was a very entertaining talker, and noted among his friends for saying good things. The study of nature was his constant and chief delight, while his whole life was entirely given up to his painting. In his youth he was de-voted to the study of music, but, unlike Gains-borough, he abandoned it when he found that it interfered with his work; nothing, in fact, was allowed to stand in the way of that, and so, by unceasing application, added to that passionate love of the rural scenery of his native Suffolk which first fired his genius, he became the founder of a new school of faithful landscape art, the influence of which can be traced throughout English painting from his time down to the present day.