In room 34, level 2, of the National Gallery in London hangs the Constable Collection. Visitors travel from all over the world to view the paintings of this great 19th century landscape painter. But one of these paintings – Weymouth Bay – interests me the most, as it was painted by John Constable when he stayed in Osmington, near Weymouth, in 1816 for his honeymoon. This was one of the happiest periods of his life, but his compositions of that time are often overlooked for his other paintings such as the Hay Wain or Salisbury and Leaden Lane.
John Constable was born on 11 June 1776 in East Bergholt in Suffolk, fourth child, the son of a prosperous miller. He was educated at Dedham Grammar School, then worked for his father’s business where Constable became known locally as the Handsome Miller. His ambition, however, was to be a painter, and in 1799 Constable finally got permission from his parents to study art at the Royal Academy Schools in London.
From the very beginning of his career, Constable’s aim was clear: not to copy the work of the old masters, but to approach nature itself with a fresh eye – he wrote, ‘Willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.” Constable was also deeply religious(he had considered a life in the church) and viewed landscape as ‘God’s own work’.
His parents worried over the future of their art-mad son. But they were aware of the promising example of Thomas Gainsborough – an artist that had managed to make a good living from combining portraiture with landscape, and they argued that their son should follow the same path.
So to pacify his parents and for the financial gains John agreed to do portraits.
One sitter for his portraits was the young Maria Bicknell who Constable fell for. Maria was the granddaughter of the wealthy rector of East Bergholt, and was considered by everyone, including Constable’s own parents, to be quite out of his reach. Marriage between the two would be impossible unless John could demonstrate an ability to provide a healthy income.
The above painting meant a lot to John. He took the portrait with him everywhere, using it as a substitute for the girl herself when they were parted. “I am sitting before your portrait,” he wrote during a solo visit to East Bergholt, “which, when I took off the paper, is so extremely like that I can hardly help going up to it. I never had an idea before of the real pleasure that a portrait could offer.” This likeness, he told her, calmed his spirit “under all trouble”, and was placed next to his bed so that it was the last thing he saw at night and the first thing he saw on waking in the morning.
Love, though, was not enough and it was not till Constables fathers death in 1816 when John inherited wealth which in turn allowed the couple to marry 16 years after they first met.
He married Maria in St Martins-in-the-Fields, London, on 2 October 1816. No one from her family attended, which suggests they were still not happy with the match.Their service was conducted by John’s great friend, Rev. John Fisher.
Rev John Fisher was well-connected. His uncle was Dr John Fisher, Bishop of Sailsbury, and was prominent in fashionable society, and referred to as the “Kings Fisher” because of his associations with King George III. The Bisop was a very good friend of Constable and gave him good advice as well as patronage. It was through Dr Fisher that Constable met his nephew, who became Constable’s closest friend and great patron. Rev Fisher and his wife Mary invited the Constables to stay with them at Osmington for their honeymoon and tempted Constable with the opportunity to paint:
” a great pleasure if you & your bride will come and stay with me and my wife. The country here is wonderfully wild and sublime and well worth a painters visit. My house commands a singularly beautiful view: and you may study from my very windows. You shall have a plate of meat set by the side of your easel without you sitting down to dinner; we never see company: and I have brushes, paints and canvass in abundance. My wife is quiet and silent and sits and reads without disturbing a soul and Mrs Constable may follow her example. Of an evening we will sit over an autumnal fire side, read a sensible book perhaps a sermon, and after prayer get us to bed at peace with ourselves and all the world.”
This letter gives us a wonderful insight on how Constable liked to paint – quietly, intensely and with a plate of meat!
The offer was accepted and after the wedding the newly weds travelled down to Osmington. The vicarage was a tight squeeze for two couples but they all had much in common and enjoyed each others company. The weather was relatively good and there were excursions to Weymouth, Portland, Preston, Sutton Poynz and Ringstead. Constable took a sketch book with him where ever he went. Fisher, a keen amateur painter himself, supplied him with freshly ground paints which could be used for rapid oil sketches outdoors – employing the lid of his paint box held on his knees for an easel.
By return of hospitality Constable painted portraits of his hosts.
Constable was drawn to the Osmington shore. Even though he found the coast line inspiring he also found it an area of desolation and tragedy. Shipwrecks were not uncommon in this area and one in particular brought the desperation home for Constable. When Mary Fisher was a young girl, the Earl of Abergavenny sank, drowning 200 men on board including Mary’s cousin – Captain John Wordsworth, who was the poet William Wordsworth’s brother. What William Wordsworh put into words “The seas in anger, and that dismal shore,” Constable put into art.
But the art critics did not appreciate Constables bleak interpretations of Osmington and Weymouth Bay, They wrote “not a very happy performance, but a sketch of barren sand without interest, and very unlike the artist’s other pleasing works of home scenery.’(New Monthly Magazine).
The Constables enjoyed Weymouth so much they extended their stay and did not leave until the end of November.
Constable and John Fisher remained good friends through out their lives and Constable would come for several more holidays to Osmington. But it was the honeymoon trip that he remembered with fondness and made more poignant and as his beloved wife died of consumption in 1828, leaving him responsible for seven children under the age of eleven.. Intensely saddened, Constable wrote to his brother Golding, “hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel-God only knows how my children will be brought up… the face of the World is totally changed to me”.
Thereafter, he always dressed in black and was, according to Leslie, “a prey to melancholy and anxious thoughts” which were compounded by the death of his great friend John Fisher in 1832.
Constable died on the 31st march 1835 and was buried with Maria at St John Hampstead, London.
Charles Lesley: Memoirs of the Life of John Constable (1843)