Reviews of Constable in Love
Martin Gayford’s portrait of Constable is a gift to the artist’s many admirers, writes Andrew Motion
Once the deed is done, Gayford quickens his pace. Hitherto, the merits of the book have depended on slowness, close scrutiny and an attractive tendency to wander after associated themes as they arise (everything from contemporary postal operations to the fire service). The 12 years of the Constables’ marriage, Maria’s eight pregnancies, the golden age of the “six footers” such as The Hay Wain, Maria’s death from tuberculosis in 1828, and the sorrow that darkened what remained of Constable’s own life, are covered in a single short chapter, so we end the book with a sense of disappointment. For what precedes it, Constable’s many admirers will be grateful: it’s a portrait in which affection for the subjects becomes genuinely revealing.
Constable in Love. The title’s a problem. Partly because it’s cheesy, making John Constable sound more submissive than he was, and partly because the book does not contain a full account of what being in love meant to him. It’s the history of his courtship – admittedly a very long-drawn-out, complicated business – and gives no more than a sketch of his subsequent marriage (which all the evidence suggests was just as loving as the preamble).
That Necessary Article Cash – book review by Frances Spalding
‘A large income’, remarks Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, ‘is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.’ Her cynicism offsets the untainted goodness of the heroine, Fanny Price, who is just a little exasperating. Certainly, in the early nineteenth century, lack of money could call a halt to marriage, as it did for John Constable. After declaring his love for Maria Bicknell, he had to wait seven years until his financial position was in good enough shape to make her his wife. ‘My Dear Sir,’ Maria wrote, early on in their relationship, ‘His [her father’s] only objection would be on the score of that necessary article Cash.’
Martin Gayford is a widely admired art critic. He is also a biographer in the Jane Austen mode: immediately engaging, cunning, agreeable and alert to the vagaries of human behaviour. He avoids the tedium associated with biographies that travel remorselessly from cradle-to-grave by focusing instead on a significant relationship and a limited period. He did this first in The Yellow House, which was confined to a nine-week period. During this time Van Gogh drew Gauguin into a working partnership at Arles in the South of France, an association which ended tragically with Van Gogh cutting off part of his ear. This book established a recipe for success that Gayford returns to in Constable in Love. He does so with yet more skill and art, for he is fully at home in Regency England, and as knowledgeable about its metropolitan theatrical entertainments as he is about harvest rituals in rural Suffolk.
Jane Stevenson enjoys Martin Gayford’s account of a great painter’s muse in Constable in Love
We know Constable as one of the grand masters of English painting. His contemporaries knew him as the handsome son of the miller of East Bergholt, one of those unsatisfactory young men who seems born to fritter away the solid achievement of a father who had emerged from the peasantry by sheer graft. Constable’s paintings, profoundly sensitive to evanescent light effects, paved the way for Impressionism, but appeared “unfinished”, insubstantial, to contemporary critics, and laid him open to the charge of amateurism. The only serious money he made was in portraiture, which bored him, and there was not much of it.
It is not uncommon for landscape artists to have one place which is to them the earthly paradise. For Stanley Spencer it was Cookham, for Constable it was East Bergholt, in the reticent, lavishly wooded region between Suffolk and Essex. In 1800, when he was 24, he met a 12-year-old with a sweet and winsome face, who was visiting her grandfather, the wealthy, somewhat overbearing, rector of the parish. Nine years later, he declared eternal love. Maria Bicknell was intelligent, attractive, refined and delicate, as befitted the daughter of a well-known and successful London lawyer, but one of the most important things about her was that she and Constable knew one another from East Bergholt. From Constable’s point of view, she was thus a natural muse, the embodiment of the landscape which was always at the centre of his art.