Maria Bicknell

Maria Bicknell with Two of her Children (detail) by John Constable 1820 - Tate Gallery

Maria Constable with two of her children (detail) by John Constable c1822

Maria Bicknell was born into a wealthy family. Her father Charles was a London lawyer who fathered seven children by two wives. He was solicitor to the Prince Regent and the admiralty. He also believed Maria would inherit a substantial sum of money from her grandfather, Rev Dr Durrand Rhudde – his second wife’s father.

  • Maria Elizabeth Bicknell was Maria’s mother and Charles Bicknell’s second wife, she gave birth to five children, (Maria being the eldest) and died when her daughter was in  her early 20s – in May 1815.
  • Rev Dr Durrand Rhudde was Maria’s wealthy grandfather who had been a *Chaplain-in-Ordinary to George III, but who had then become rector of East Bergholt Church. He had inherited all his money from his sister who married a rich man, died childless and left everything to him and his daughter (Maria’s mother). *Note:There were thirty six “Chaplains-in -Ordinary” who appear to have been an advisory body which reported to the Chaplain who had direct access to the King.
Detail from a painting of Maria Bicknell by John Constable 1816 - Tate Gallery

Thwarted in love

Maria met John Constable while visiting her grandfather, the Rev Dr Durand Rhudde in East Bergholt when she was twelve and John Constable was in his early twenties. When Maria was her twenties, the pair met again, fell in love and wanted to marry but were thwarted by Maria’s grandfather, who threatened to disinherit Maria if she went ahead and married John.

At the time (1809) John Constable was a struggling artist, living on only £100 a year (an allowance from his parents) plus a little money earned from selling portraits. This was not enough money to support himself, never mind a wife and children. The couple were forbidden to see each other because Maria’s father, Charles Bicknell, obeyed Rev Dr Rhudde’s edict for fear his children would be disinerited. For seven years John and Maria were forced to meet in secret. The strain of the separation caused them both to become stressed and depressed and adversely affected John’s ability to paint.

Marriage after 7 years courtship

In 1816 John Constable’s father died and his will provided equally and generously for all of his six children. The income generated from the family business was managed by brother Abram for the benefit of the whole family. This income together with a share in the proceeds from the sale of Golding Constable’s land and family mansion, meant John suddenly had sufficient income to keep a wife and any children who came along. 

Maria’s health was fragile – the Bicknell family were prone to life threatening illness – two of Maria’s brothers died of tuberculosis aged nineteen and twenty four, the disease that eventually killed Maria too. During twelve years of marriage (1816-1828), Maria was continually pregnant, giving birth to seven children (plus one miscarriage) which put an enormous strain on her health.

By 1824, Maria had given birth to four children, John-Charles, Maria-Louisa (Minna), Charles-Golding (Charley) and Isabel and Mrs Roberts had been appointed as full time nanny and governess. Although suffering from tuberculosis, Maria gave birth to three more children, Emily (born prematurely), Alfie (born prematurely) and Lionel-Bicknell before dying a few months later. The last three pregnancies and births left Maria in a ‘sad and weak condition’ (John Constable) and she had difficulty in feeding the babies.

Maria's final days

After the birth of Lionel-Bicknell, Maria did not recover her strength. Constable was distraught and could concentrate on nothing but his wife’s illness.

  • “Although Constable appeared in his usual spirits in her presence, yet before I left the house, he took me into another room, wrung my hand, and burst into tears, without speaking”. (letter written in 1828 by friend and biographer, Charles Leslie)
  • “I am intensely distressed and can hardly attend to anything.” (letter written by John Constable in 1828 to a client dissatisfied with part of his work).

The sequence of events leading to Maria’s death were distressing for her and the whole family. The final stages of consumption (known as tuberculosis today) were painful – vomiting, bleeding, fever and lassitude with Maria’s speech becoming no more than a whisper.

  • January (2nd) 1828 Maria’s seventh child, Lionel Bicknell was born
  • March 1828 Maria’s father died leaving her £20,000 which put an end to the Constable’s money worries
  • April 1828, Maria’s tubercular coughing became very much worse and Alfie (her sixth child) contracted whooping cough
  • May 1828 – John sent Maria and the children (including Alfie) to Brighton for the air but after six weeks with no improvement to their health, the family returned to London
  • November (23rd) 1828 Maria died at the age of forty one

After Maria’s death, 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.” (letter written in 1828 by John Constable to his older brother, Golding).

Click on the Tate Gallery links for more information about the paintings and drawings of Maria Bicknell