A vivid but strangely unresolved image | Jonathan Clarkson
This article is from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To receive the full magazine, why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
VSagent character possesses has always posed a problem for his biographers. On the one hand, we know he was kind, compassionate, sensitive, and loving, but we also know he could be mean, sarcastic, bitter, and rude. The problem was to unite these two aspects of his character to give the sense of a whole personality.
It’s not an easy job. James Hamilton’s approach is different; he does not try to explain the various faces of Constable: he shows them to his readers and lets us form our own opinion. Instead of trying to unearth a nugget of pure Constable, he goes in the opposite direction and shows us the world in which he lived and evolved, which he brings to life in all its details and particularities.
Constable was not a hermit, even if he sometimes regretted being
Hamilton unearthed the names of many people who worked for the artist’s father, Golding: James Revans, the clerk; Zachariah Savell, mate of his ship the Telegraph, which was pressed in London; Joseph King; Joe Cook. He also names servants who worked for John and his family. Some, like Elizabeth Roberts, were practically part of the family; others came and went, including Sarah the maid, Ellen, her replacement, and Mary the servant, who was married to Ellen’s cousin. There were also tradesmen inside and outside the house: Kennedy the handyman and Ambrose Wright the upholsterer. Others are just names: Hannah Heeble, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Port.
Each of these names is a small detail, but taken together they begin to produce a different image of Constable than we’re used to. Instead of the solitary artist fighting alone against the establishment and the high priests of taste, there is a small army whose work supported Constable and allowed him to devote himself to landscape painting. Constable was no hermit, though he sometimes wished he was. Friendship and companionship, and probably rivalry too, were essential to his way of life.
This richly realized world is most often benign. Although Hamilton makes no secret of Constable’s protracted struggle to establish himself as a significant artist, he does point out the amount of support he enjoyed. Sir George Beaumont, who was introduced to the budding painter in the 1790s, is presented as an ally, despite never buying a painting from him. Similarly, Hamilton points to the sound advice Joseph Farrington gave Constable over the years, even though the artist knew his support had limits: during those years when he repeatedly applied (and failed) to become an associate from the Royal Academy, Farrington regularly voted for other candidates.
All the great artists Constable met at the Royal Academy seemed to recognize the young artist’s talent, although, as Hamilton admits, nothing Constable exhibited in the first ten years of his professional life came out of the blue. ‘ordinary. Hamilton even calls on Wordsworth as a sympathetic spirit and comrade. The two met and, although Constable read and admired Wordsworth’s poetry, evidence that the two men loved each other is quite scant.
After Constable’s death, Wordsworth contributed to the fund to purchase The corn field for the National Gallery, but he offered only one guinea, not a special mark of esteem. The general bonhomie of this world is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the remarks of Constable. Look, for example, at how Hamilton handles the origins of the phrase “Constable Country.” Here’s how he presents it:
Constable: “Isn’t it pretty?”
Travel companion: “Yes sir, this is the country of the gendarme.”
Constable: “I’m John Constable.”
Compare this with Constable’s own account in a letter to David Lucas in 1832:
Yesterday in the car from Suffolk were two gentlemen and myself, all strangers to each other. While crossing the valley around Dedham, one of them remarked to me, saying it was beautiful: “Yes, sir, this is Constable country!” I then told him who I was lest he mess it up.
The biting humor of this final comment darkens and clouds Hamilton’s good-natured and polite conversation.
Although no biography would have been written if Constable had not painted what he did, the paintings are not the focus of this study, they are there primarily to shed light on Constable’s character development, but as Hamilton’s approach is to present the facts and let the reader decide, the light that falls is uncertain. He is a skilled summarizer and his descriptions of the paintings are vivid, as when he points out the “surprised exclamation of poplar trees against the sky” or describes Brighton’s chain pier as a “delightful spider’s web”.
Its imagery helps the reader visualize the painting and at the same time tells us something about its meaning. He often uses a painting to take the reader to the moment of its creation, showing us a constable sitting on a barrel or pole on the windy beach at Brighton gripped by the sight of a storm about a mile offshore and working swiftly without preconceived ideas to put the view on paper before the rain hits the ground.
Time and paint come together so that the downpour is the paint that describes it. Hamilton finding the finished oil sketch optimistic goes hand in hand with his generally sunny view of Constable’s world.
Hamilton’s portrait, on the other hand, remains strangely elusive
His writing is less persuasive when moving from evocation to explanation. It devotes a chapter to the realization of The Hay Wain, and his depiction of the world he depicts is detailed and accurate. Her writing makes the relationship of the parts of the picture part of the relationship of social, economic, and weather phenomena in the world it depicts.
In this sense, Hamilton sees it as a complete statement of Constable’s vision of landscape painting. Explaining what might have led Constable to this conception, Hamilton turns to Poussin and a biography of him by Maria Graham published in 1820. He argues that the biography played a vital role in Constable’s understanding of the moral value of landscape . But the letter to John Fisher in which Constable says he recently read Graham’s book was written six months after the painting was finished and exhibited at the Royal Academy.
The constable was also an accomplished portrait painter, although he often complained that this prevented him from doing landscape work. His best portraits are not exactly psychological, but they are extraordinarily frank: the bodies are solid and the conditions of their lives, marked in their flesh, are recorded without flattery. This is what gives them a sense of bodily presence; something was seen.
Hamilton’s portrait, by contrast, remains oddly elusive; it’s got some fascinating detail and all kinds of insight, but its decision to leave the nature of Constable’s character unresolved means all that good stuff revolves around an absence. Where is Constable in all this? The sun slips behind a cloud and disappears among the shadows of the trees.