Constable Biography

John Constable was born in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt on 11 June 1776, the son of Golding and Ann Constable.


Golding Constable inherited Flatford Mill from his Uncle, Abram Constable, who didn’t have any children of his own. The family also had a part ownership in the mill at Dedham, a family farm at the back of the house at East Bergholt, two windmills, one at East Bergholt and one at Brantham, two briggs – ships that sailed around and into the Thames Estuary, one called Telegraph and one called Balloon. They also manufactured Lighters, the name for the barges used on the Stour and other canals in East Anglia, each capable of carrying 13 tonnes and towed by Suffolk Punch horses for a distance of some 23 miles between Manningtree and Sudbury. The lighters were used for carrying grain and coal along the Stour which during this period was a busy trade route. These lighters were to feature in many of Constable’s canal scene master pieces and would have been a familiar sight in Constable’s day.

Constable’s early life he was spent around some of East Anglia’s most idyllic countryside. This was to have a lasting impression throughout his life and was to become the main subject of his most notable works of art.

Constable’s older brother, also called Golding, had special needs. Unable to take over the family business he became a gamekeeper at Bentley woods, Suffolk. He was known to be ‘a fine shot with a gun’ and would occasionally supply Constable with a ‘feathered subject’ for him to sketch.

As the next male son John Constable’s destiny to become a miller and take over the running of the family business was almost fulfilled when he started work in one of the family windmills. This gave him an appreciation of the weather and cloud formations, all important for the operation of a windmill that needed to be turned into the wind in order to operate efficiently.

The windmill itself was to provide Constable with his earliest canvas as the earliest known work of art from Constable is in fact a carving depicting a windmill which Constable scribed with a pocket knife on to one of the beams at Brantham.

Constable’s neighbour in the village was Mr John Dunthorne, the local glazier and odd job man, who was Constable’s earliest influence. He was an amateur artist who shared Constable’s passion for painting, despite their class differences, the two were to become unlikely companions.

Coming from a wealthy family who owned much of the land surrounding Flatford Mill gave Constable free access to the countryside where he and Dunthorne would go out to find suitable views to paint.

Constable Shoot 4-96-Edit
View of Dedham Church from Flatford.

Constable’s passion for painting was further encouraged by two influential people, Sir George Beaumont, a member of the Royal Academy whose mother lived in nearby Dedham and Dr John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury who had, as part of his diocese, the small church in nearby Langham village. These influential supporters gave Constable the opportunity to be considered for entry into the Royal Academy. An artist was a relatively new occupation for a gentleman and the suggestion that Constable would like to go to the Royal Academy for training was not greeted with much enthusiasm from his father. However, Constable’s persistence prevailed and he was allowed to set off for London to join the Royal Academy in 1798/9.

Upon arrival, Constable set out what type of artist he wanted to be; he was a painter of landscapes – a subject which was not considered to be of any great value or worth at this time. To add to this burden Constable chose not just to paint any landscapes but landscapes that were meaningful to him, landscapes of his own places.

“Still I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil, and your picture [‘The White Horse’] is one of the strongest instance I can recollect of it.”  Letter to Rev. John Fisher (23 October 1821), from John Constable’s Correspondence, part 6, pp. 76-78

These subjects were to be Constable’s passion however they were not to be a source of income and he was forced to paint portraits in order to make a living as an artist, like many artists at the time. His early years at the Royal Academy were against the backdrop of the rise to fame of his almost identical contemporary, Turner, who achieved great success very early in his career, achieving full academician status soon after his arrival. Constable was to only achieve the same academician status at the age of 50 years and only then did he get admitted by 1 single vote. His ambition to achieve recognition in Britain was to be the driving force of his artistic career.

Each year Constable had the opportunity to exhibit his most valued works at the annual Summer Exhibition. The first of his so called 6ft canal scenes depicted a white horse on the bough of a lighter, yards from the family mill. The subject of local working class lightermen, farm buildings and cattle was unique and revolutionary for the time and it would take the British public a number of years to fully appreciate them. This scene, painted in 1819, entitled the White Horse was to become the first of a series of canal scene paintings that are known as the constable 6fters.

The White Horse 1819
White Horse

So in Constable’s time the Summer Exhibition was at Somerset House in rooms which today form the Courtauld Gallery. With space at a premium (every inch of wall space was covered with paintings) Constable realised that he had an additional challenge. With so many artists painting portraits and, naturally in a portrait aspect, when Constable arrived with a 6ft landscape painting it was hard to place his works alongside the others as it would be disruptive to the symmetry of the display. As such his paintings would often be positioned by the hanging committee in the less desirable ante-room, a smaller room which led off of the great room where the most prized positions were. This would cause him great anxiety and was to influence him to paint a number of landscapes in an upright portrait format later in his career, e.g The Lock, The Cornfield.

Another influence on Constable’s art was his personal life and the beautiful Maria (pronounced Mariah) Elizabeth Bicknell.

Constable was known as the handsome miller and is known to have wandered around the area in a white coat which was ‘quite becoming of him.’ On one occasion Ann Taylor, who composed Twinkle Twinkle little star, went to visit him with her sisters. His mother is said to have asked them “Do you want to go up and see him one at a time, or en masse?”

But it was Maria who stole Constable’s heart. Although 12 years his junior, Maria would often stay with her grandfather, Dr Rudd and it was at the local church, just along the road where Constable lived that they first met. They had an on off relationship for a number of years, restrained due to her families disapproval as a struggling artist was not the upper class man they had hoped for their daughter. The Bicknall’s were lawyers to the admiralty and moved in circles with royalty. Despite the Constable’s relative wealth their standing in society was not quite up to the same level.

Constable Shoot 4-106-Edit
View of East Bergholt Church.

The Bicknell Family were tolerant of Constable’s interest in Maria to begin with however when it became clear, after a number of years that things were a little more serious, the immediate family and to a greater extent Dr Rudd, played a more decisive role in influencing the course of true love. It culminated in Dr Rudd threatening to cut Maria out of his will with an ultimatum that she was to cut off all ties with Constable. Despite clear mutual affection Maria, while staying with her half-sister Sarah Skey in Worcester, wrote to Constable to end all ties, telling him not to contact her, speak to her and that “We both must be realistic,” putting the cause of the break-up down to “cold hard cash, something that neither of us have.”

Constable received the letter while in bed with flu, broken-hearted, he took a carriage to Worcester where he requested an audience with Maria. His gamble paid off, supported no doubt by Sarah Skey’s fondness of him and Maria relented and they decided that no matter what, they would indeed get married with or without the family’s blessing.

Maria though, was in constant poor health. Constable’s subjects of Hampstead Heath and Brighten are largely due to the doctors at the time recommending Maria take country and sea air. Her poor health was not helped by giving birth to seven children. Eventually Maria succumbed to tuberculosis  in 1828, just 12 years after they were married. Although short, Constable’s marriage to Maria was a happy one and it is during this period that some of Constable’s greatest works were produced, including The Hay Wain and The Cornfield.

A year after Maria’s death Constable finally achieved full academician status at the Royal Academy, an honour that grieved him as Maria was not there to share the success with him. Constable’s paintings after this take a noteable turn in direction with rainbows featuring and stormy skies becoming more prevalent. Constable’s dearest friend Rev John Fisher also passed away around this time adding to Constable’s gloom.

In 1821 Constable planned to exhibit a scene of Waterloo Bridge at the Royal Academy’s Annual Exhibition, a subject quite different from his typical chosen landscapes, upon showing this to Joseph Farington, an influential member of the Royal Academy, Constable was persuaded to continue with his canal scenes. Valuing Farington’s opinion highly Constable set off immediately to begin a new canal scene. With limited time Constable had to set to work with great haste in order to complete the picture which he exhibited under the title Landscape Noon, a picture that was later to be referred to as The Hay Wain. The Hay Wain was received positively at the Royal Academy but it was not until 1824 when a French dealer took the painting together with two others (View on the Stour near Dedham and Yarmouth Pier) to Paris to be exhibited at the Paris Salon – the French equivalent of the Royal Academy. With Britain having been at war with France over the preceding years the French were startled to see the style and subject of this most English painter. The stark contrast of Constable’s works against the classic French works was significant enough to receive the Gold Medal from Charles X. Constable had wowed France and received the highest accolade from them. This recognition however gave little comfort to Constable who still continued to doubt his abilities based on his persistent desire to achieve fame in his home country. Constable would not even travel to France to collect the medal.

Constable went on to lecture at the Royal Academy and died in 1837 at the age of 61 from heart failure.


  • Anthony Bailey, A Kingdom of His Own
  • Constable in Love, Martin Gayford
  • Constable Letters, Suffolk Record Society, edited by Beckett
  • Memoirs of John Constable, Robert Leslie

Thank you too to Mark Cable, National Trust Guide at Flatford, Suffolk.

Constable Shoot 3

It was far too dull and overcast in Flatford this weekend for me to take the shots I needed for my Final Major Project so instead I tagged along on one of the guided tours, learning about Constable and taking a few photos as I went.

Firstly these are a few photos of Flatford Mill, the visitor’s centre and Valley Farm. I took all of these photographs with a 50mm prime lens which gives roughly a view the width that you might see with your eye.

Like with my panoramas, I have converted the photographs to black and white to give them a timeless feel that reflects the timelessness of the scenery and I have boosted the contrast to give them a stronger, tougher, more industrial feel that matches the weather and the fact that these were once industrial buildings.

I also took a few photos of Mark, the National Trust tour guide and the party of Londoners that he was showing around. It was a blustery day, the wind had a nasty bite to it and at the beginning of the tour the party looked cold, fed up and really not very interested but despite this being the first tour of the season our guide’s passion had everyone hooked. We soon forgot about the cold and were gripped by the rebellious young Constable who shunned his father’s business in order to become a painter and also the love story of Constable and his wife Maria Elizabeth Bicknell which led to a dramatic transformation in painting style after Maria died.

Here I have left the photos in colour so that I can experiment with a new Lightroom plug-in by Athentech called Perfect Exposure that was recommended on the Photofocus blog. Although exposure can be tweaked in Lightroom, the blog claims that Perfect Exposure can do it better and in just one click. I’m pleased with the results and it is very straight forward to use although when you have a batch of photos you need to export them to Perfect Exposure before making that ‘one click’ so I’m not sure that the claim of ease and speed is quite as suggested!

Finally, because it is Easter and supposed to be the beginning of Spring I took a few photos of the season. Although not directly related to my Final Major Project, Constable would have sketched details like this before including them in a larger image.

Constable Shoot 1

This week I have been to Flatford for a first test shoot around the area. I found it all a little bit overwhelming. I went with a National Trust guide who was so enthusiastic about what I was doing that I could hardly keep up with him and take it all in.

The Haywain

We began by looking around the site where the Haywain was sketched from – Constable made a lot of sketches and then painted the final paintings back in his studio.

The Hay Wain
John Constable, 1776 – 1837 The Hay Wain 1821 Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4 cm Presented by Henry Vaughan, 1886 NG1207

Constable seems to have adjusted some of what he sees in order to make it look good on the canvas. The first thing that was pointed out to me was the roof on Willy Lott’s Cottage, in the Haywain painting it is much shorter than it is in real life.

The field at the back of the mill pond is now hidden by trees and long grasses and has a popular footpath running through it. The footpath where the dog is looking at the cart now has steps – incidentally the dark patch that can be seen on the painting next to the dog is from a painting underneath, the oil that has created the Haywain has worn thin over the years vaguely revealing what is underneath.

There is no fishing on the Mill Pond now and the only rowing boats are on The Stour, the other side of the mill.


I found that I couldn’t fit everything from the painting in my camera frame, even with my 18mm lens. I have had to stitch two photographs together in Photoshop. It is pretty close but still doesn’t include the end of the mill wall on the right side of the painting and also doesn’t include enough sky. Constable’s painting is dominated by a dark moody sky and I need to ensure that I include clouds too.


I took another couple of photographs and stitched them together with slightly more success. This time choosing to display the photograph in black and white with the contrast boosted to ensure as much detail can be seen as possible.


Boat Building

The second painting my guide talked to me about was Boat Building.

(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Paintings Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

It had been raining heavily for several days before I went to take these photographs and the dock was full of water. Apparently there is a plug where the bow of the boat is in this painting that allows the water to drain out of the dock, under the canal and into a ditch on the far side of the river. I would like to return when the weather is dryer as some wooden boat rests can be seen in the dock when the water has gone.

My guide showed me an exact replica of one of Constable’s sketch books which includes a pencil sketch that he later used to help him complete the painting.

The National Trust cafe now sits on the right of this scene and wooden tables and chairs cover the field on the left.

Again I needed a very wide angle to take a photograph that included everything that is in the painting and still think that I could do with a slightly wider lens.


View on the Stour

A View on the Stour near Dedham is a view from the river, looking towards Dedham, at the entrance to the dry dock seen in the Boat Building painting above.


A new bridge has been built now and I was lucky enough to capture a wave from Mr and Mrs Claus as they were looking for small children to entertain. In the painting there is a lady with a baby on the bridge and as I was photographing a lady with a pushchair just happened to be passing across so I took another quick photograph of that. Also the cottage that can be seen on the right of the painting is now partially obscured by the cafe.

The season is closed for the winter and there are no boats on the river at all at the moment. There will be some small rowing boats available for hire from March or April but nothing the size of those in the painting and certainly nothing with a sail.

Dedham church, that can be seen in the distance of the painting is all but obscured by trees today.


I wasn’t standing in quite the right position for this photograph. I need to try again, standing closer to the dock and further to the right.


I have a panoramic setting on my camera and experimented with a panoramic photograph of the scene. It is quite interesting but I have taken it too low and missed the tops of the trees and sky from the image.


Flatford Mill

We crossed over the river to the foot of the bridge where my guide showed me the next view point.

Flatford Mill ('Scene on a Navigable River') 1816-17 by John Constable 1776-1837
Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’) 1816-17 John Constable 1776-1837 Bequeathed by Miss Isabel Constable as the gift of Maria Louisa, Isabel and Lionel Bicknell Constable 1888

Flatford Mill was painted a little differently to the others in the series. I understand that Constable set up a large piece of glass on a stand and etched into the glass what he saw through it. He then took that back to the studio took a rubbing of it which gave him a reverse image and then reversed and transferred that onto the canvas.

Constable did make other sketches from this spot which may also have helped him complete this painting.

Apart from the trees, this scene has changed very little since Constable painted it. And again I needed to stitch two photographs together in order to fit everything in the frame.

The painting shows quite a busy scene with people on both sides of the river but when I took these photos it was very cold and only a few dog walkers were around.

The ditch shown on the right of the painting is still in the landscape but cannot be seen from this angle. It goes from behind that green box and I think, in front of the trees. It is much smaller now than it was then.


Boys Fishing

We walked along the path ahead to the lock and the sight of the next painting, Boys Fishing.

Boys Fishing

Here I stopped a family and asked their two children to quickly pose for me.

I guess the main difference here is the lock. The lock in the painting has long since broken and the new lock was placed to the side of the original lock. I had taken in too much information by this point and was struggling to keep up with what my guide was saying so I will need to double check the details of this as I’m not sure if the footpath has been moved to the right too.

I only took one photograph of this scene because of the children getting bored and their parents also wanting to take photos and get in my space!


The Lock

The viewpoint for The Lock is in the middle of the river so I am unable to photograph this viewpoint at the moment. I believe the boats will be available again in the spring so I may not be able to include this in my project until a later date.


Again it is worth noting that the lock is not the same lock and not in the same place so that will be reflected in my photograph when it is eventually taken. Below is the spot across the river that is the scene of The Lock but clearly not from the correct angle.


The Ferry

My guide had me climbing over the bank to show me a view of Willy Lott’s Cottage from the south of the river. Apparently there is a painting called The Ferry from this angle hanging in the Tate Gallery. I wasn’t aware of this painting and wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to be photographing.

The Ferry

This is the photograph I took without having seen the painting. Clearly I am the wrong side of the tree!


White Horse

Finally, after battling my way through some very boggy reeds and stinging nettles my guide took me to the spot where the White Horse was painted.

The White Horse 1819

Again it was tricky trying to get everything in the frame and I think I will need to take a couple of photographs and stitch them together. You will notice that the river has changed shape considerably here with ‘the spong,’ that piece of land that causes the river to fork slightly, has grown to make the scene almost unrecognisable.



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