Biography of John Constable

Hampstead Heath: Branch Hill Pond by John Constable, oil on canvas, 1828, Museum no. FA35(0). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Hampstead Heath: Branch Hill Pond by John Constable, oil on canvas, 1828, Museum no. FA35(0). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

John Constable (1776 - 1837) was born at East Bergholt, Suffolk, the fourth child of Golding and Ann Constable. In 1792 he began work in the flourishing family business, trading and transporting corn and coal on and around the River Stour. His ambition, however, was to be a painter. A local amateur artist, John Dunthorne, offered encouragement and in 1799 Constable finally got permission from his parents to study art at the Royal Academy Schools in London.

Although always associated with Suffolk, Constable, like most professional artists of his time, needed a base in London to negotiate with prospective buyers. In 1816 he married Maria Bicknell and the following year he established a home in Bloomsbury. But Constable did not enjoy living in central London, so in 1819 the family moved to the first of a series of houses in Hampstead, which was then outside the city.

Constable's biographer, C R Leslie, wrote that the life work of Constable was 'a history of his affections'. Constable himself wrote that painting 'is with me but another word for feeling'. There is no doubt that Constable had a nostalgic attachment to the countryside of his boyhood - the Suffolk villages of East Bergholt, Dedham, Stratford St Mary and Langham - and perhaps especially the views of the River Stour. In addition, he frequently painted other subjects with personal significance, like Hampstead and Salisbury, where his closest friend John Fisher, nephew of the Bishop of Salisbury, lived.

'Constable at the age of twenty' by Daniel 
Gardner, 1796, Museum no. 589-1888

'Constable at the age of twenty' by Daniel Gardner, oil on canvas, 1796, Museum no. 589-1888

Constable exhibited his first painting at the Royal Academy in 1802, but soon after wrote to his friend John Dunthorne:

'I shall shortly return to Bergholt where I shall make some laborious studies from nature… there is little or nothing in the exhibition worth looking up to - there is room enough for a natural painter'.

From the very beginning of his career, Constable's aim was clear: not to copy the work of the old masters (although he admired and learned from their work), but to approach nature itself with a fresh eye and an open mind. He wrote, 'Willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things'.

Constable's art was quite different to the 'Grand Manner' paintings that were popular at the time. These depicted mythological and biblical subjects set in impossibly idyllic landscapes. Yet, Constable's paintings are just as much 'idylls', removed as they are from the reality of industrialisation and changing industrial practices. His decision not to follow prevailing artistic norms meant that Constable had little success for many years and was not elected a full Royal Academician until 1829, at the late age of 54 (Turner, his great rival, was elected at 26). He is now recognised as one of the most important artists of the Romantic movement, which emphasised emotion and a sense of the power of nature. Constable himself was deeply religious and viewed landscape as 'God's own work'.

Landscape and Double Rainbow by John Constable, oil on canvas, Museum no. 328-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Landscape and Double Rainbow by John Constable, oil on canvas, Museum no. 328-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Landscape and Double Rainbow is the artist's first treatment of a theme he seems to have used consciously as a symbol of hope. He painted it during a return visit to his birthplace in Suffolk. It has been related to lines from Wordsworth's poem The Rainbow:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began
So is it now I am a man
So be it when I shall grow old…
The child is father of the man…

To the Romantics, the rainbow seemed the ultimate image of everything in life that was beautiful but transitory, visible but intangible. Constable himself wrote: 'Nature in all the varied aspects of her beauty exhibits no feature more lovely nor any that awakens a more soothing reflection than the rainbow'.


Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree' by John Constable, oil on canvas, about 1821, Museum no. 786-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree' by John Constable, oil on canvas, about 1821, Museum no. 786-1888. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The V&A's Constable collection

The first director of the V&A, Sir Henry Cole, recorded in his diary on 31 July 1856 that the collector John Sheepshanks had offered his collection to the nation. Sheepshanks's collection comprised 234 paintings, almost all by modern British artists, and included six by Constable, most notably the famous Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds.

However, the V&A's most important Constable acquisitions came from the artist's last surviving child, his daughter Isabel, who had inherited and cherished the main part of the family collection. She wrote that she would present to the museum 'some landscape sketches by J Constable… they can be put in a box quite ready for removal'.

There were in fact no less than 390 paintings and drawings, in oil, watercolour, pen and pencil.

The Paintings galleries (Rooms 81, 82, 87 and 88) on Level 3 show a selection of works by Constable, including the full-scale study for 'The Hay Wain' and a number of oil sketches.

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John Constable - The Making of a Master (Hardcover)

John Constable - The Making of a Master (Hardcover)

The remarkable naturalism of John Constable’s paintings has always been acknowledged, and his ‘vivid and timeless’ (as h…

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Event - The Hidden Constable

Wed 19 November 2014 15:00

V&A Paintings Conservators, Clare Richardson and Nicola Costaras, will describe the discovery and their technical investigation of Constable's sketches.

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