Detail from a portrait by John Constable -1816
John Constable first met his future wife, Maria Bicknell when Maria was around the age of 12 and visiting her maternal grandfather Rev Durand Rhudde in East Bergholt. The couple met again when Maria was in her early twenties and they fell deeply in love and assumed they would marry.
However, Maria’s grandfather had other ideas and managed to thwart their marriage plans. Maria’s grandfather was the wealthy and irascible rector of East Bergholt. He’d argued with John’s father, Golding Constable at some time in the past (we do not know what the issue was) and he felt he should have been consulted about (and have sanctioned) any courtship in the Bicknell family.
The portrait of Maria Bicknell is owned by the Tate Gallery. For more information about the portrait painted in 1816 by John Constable please click Maria Bicknell
Maria Bicknell as a girl
1814 by John Constable Tate Gallery
Thwarted in love for 7 years
Class was an important factor in John Constable’s courtship problems. Constable was born the same year as Jane Austin and so the rural social scene he lived in was what Jane describes in her novels as, severely class ridden. Maria’s grandfather, would have been regarded ‘gentry’ while John Constable’s father, although wealthy, was regarded as nouveau riche (new wealth) riches earned through ‘trade’ as a miller. Such a marriage would not have been approved of possibly by either family but certainly not the Bicknells and their relatives.
In addition to the class differences, Maria’s grandfather considered John Constable incapable of earning enough money to support a wife. In addition, he thoroughly disapproved of Constable’s friendship with John Dunthorne whom he considered to be a dangerous aetheist. He threatened to disinherit Maria if she married Constable. As John had no regular income except £100 a year he received from his father, the couple were unable to marry.
Maria and John continued their courtship in secret for seven years. Although Maria was John’s muse and inspiration,the strain of separation and secrecy caused John to become stressed and depressed. He gained a reputation for being moody, hostile and sarcastic in his professional dealings which did not help sell his pictures!
Charles Bicknell by D Murphy 1814
Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell (lawyer to Prince Regent), followed Rev Rhudde’s lead and banned the couple from meeting – although some of the younger Bicknell/Rhudde relatives thoroughly approved of the relationship. Owned by the National Portrait Gallery – Charles Bicknell
Ann Constable (john’s mother) was always thinking of ways John might repair the relationship with the rector, including the gift of a painting of East Bergholt Church painted by her son. The rector responded to the gift by sending John a £5 note in payment – not wanting to accept the painting from him as a gift.
Death of John Constable's father
The death of John’s father, Golding Constable in 1816 revealed the unusual arrangements he had made to ensure all his children received financial support after his death. For John, his father’s death led to an income of £200 a year and he also benefited from the sale of his father’s properties. A legal agreement Golding had drawn up with his youngest son Abram meant that Abram would manage the family business for the benefit of his brothers and sisters.
With an income of £200+ a year John and Maria could afford to marry which, against the wishes of her father and grandfather. After a seven year secret courtship, John and Maria eventually married in 1816, in St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London. John Constable was aged 40 and Maria was 28.
None of the Constable or Bicknell family attended. Maria was immediately disinherited by her grandfather but her father, Charles Bicknell softened and gave the couple an allowance of £50 per year. During twelve years of marriage Maria had one miscarriage and seven live births. By 1824, she had given birth to four children, John, Minna, Charley and Isabel and although suffering from tuberculosis, she gave birth to three more, Emily, Alfie and Lionel before she died in November 1828 at the age of 41, ten months after the birth of her youngest son.
On his death in 1819, Rev Dr Rhudde relented and left all his grandchildren, including Maria, £4,000 each.