John Constable

John Constable

Words Darren Hawes

Illustrations Luke Stuart

“No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither was there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world.”

There’s a saying at my alma mater, the University of Essex, which states that you will leave the university behind. Well, there’s certainly no escaping this character whose work bleeds out of the Essex-Sussex border to the grey-blue skies of Fitzrovia, artist John Constable. I decided to look into this interesting figure from history and take a peek at just a few of his most famous works as well as get a snippet his life and times.

Born in 1768, John Constable had many homes in London and he certainly moved around a lot. Starting from East Bergholt, Sussex where he was raised, he moved to London in 1795, apparently his father consented to this “for the purpose of ascertaining what might be his chance of success as a painter.” Well, we can guess how that turned out. He first moved to Cecil Street, off the Strand, a move that soon after came marked with an inauguration into the Royal Academy in 1799. From here, he moved on to 52 Upper Norton Street, just off Portland Road –today labelled by The Guardian as “Britain’s most gentrified street”.

Of course, it was in Sussex where Constable found his inspiration to sketch and paint some of his most iconic works. Perhaps the most famous of these is Dedham Vale (1802), currently on display at the Tate Gallery; this artwork was produced one summer and sees a perspective of the landscape seen from Gun Hill, near Langham. Although it depicts a midsummer’s day, Joseph Farington, noted landscape painter and mentor to Constable, declared that he saw the picture “rather too cold and stormy to suit the idea.” It may, therefore be unsurprising to note that Constable’s use of cold blues and stormy skies would later become a signature to many of the works produced whilst in London.

However, life wasn’t all rosy for Constable whilst in London. It was in the early hours of the 10th of November that a slight tragedy occurred within his home at 63 Charlotte Street. He had been living above Richard Weights’ upholstery workshop when a fire broke out. Writing to Maria Bicknell, whom he was courting at the time, only to be married in 1816 – when Constable was 40 – he exclaimed that “I have been fortunate in losing none of my works; I am troubled only by the alarm and inconvenience this bustle has caused on my art.” For Constable, it was only the mutual love shared with Maria along with his talents that mattered. During the fire at Weights’, he braved the fumes to save his “most valuable letters.” He was reportedly showered with glass whilst rescuing a painting owned by Lady Heathcote along with the servant woman’s savings.

Sometime afterwards came the arrival of a baby girl on the 19th July 1819, and a “change of air” was called for. So they moved again from East Bergholt and returned to the outskirts of London: Hampstead. From here, Constable had a completely different view of the city than living central; whilst he could see the hills of Hampstead Heath from his home in Fitzrovia, he could now see Fitzrovia and beyond from Hampstead Heath. Thus he started paint the many views he could get from the heath. After his death, a resulting work, simply known as A View of London from Hampstead Heath was purchased by one of his seven children in an auction that lasted thirteen days through May 1838 (such was the scope of works produced) and took place at an auction house on Charlotte Street, this particular piece went for the princely sum of £35.

Before we skip too far to the end, let us go back to the beginning and the reason Constable is an inescapable figure for all and sundry. A seemingly innocuous landscape painting from 1816 has kept Constable in my mind for many years; a simple painting of cows in the field, fishing on the lake, a grand country house in the background. This painting is of Wivenhoe Park, now the site of the University of Essex. Currently being hung with pride at the National Gallery, this piece is described: “A pleasant sense of ease and harmony pervades this landscape of almost photographic clarity. The large areas of brilliant sunshine and cool shade, the rambling line of the fence, and the beautiful balance of trees, meadow, and river are evidence of the artist’s creative synthesis of the actual site.”

The bright intensity of the piece stands apart from the mainstream depictions of the day, take J.M.W Turner for instance – who’s namesake gallery, might I add, contains a number of Constable’s works – his landscapes tend towards the dramatic; storms; seas; wreckages; a hint of hope in the burst of light often emanating off-centre from the horizon: whilst Turner shows us the future, Constable looks at the pastoral beauty still existing within the present and provides an idleness we can still hope to experience in daily living.

So, when in the busy, fast-paced London life most have become accustomed to, we can always think of the man who offers peace. It is to John Constable of Charlotte Street that we can look and take a breath, for all beauty is not lost if we take the time to look for it.