Pencil (untitled) sketch by John Constable of (it is assumed) Alfred Constable
Alfred and Lionel were John Constable’s youngest sons. Maria, their mother died a few months after giving birth to Lionel, her seventh child. We have not discovered a sketch of Alfie with his name on it – but given John Constable has sketched all his children in 1831, it is thought that the untitled sketch at the top of this page is most probably of Alfie.
Alfred (Alfie) Constable 1826-1853
Alfie was Constable’s third son and fifth child.
Alfie used played under John Constable’s easel, creating mischief. He attended Hampstead School where he learnt to play the violin but like his father he was not academic.
His interest lay in drawing and at the age of sixteen spent his summer in East Bergholt with Mary, (Constable’s favourite sister) where he spent the summer sketching around Fenn Bridge, just like his father had done all those years before.
Alfie initially considered going to sea, (like his older brother Charlie) but instead decided to study art. He was enrolled at the Sass Academy, an elite institution which prepared (male) students for The Royal Academy and was located at 6 Charlotte Street, opposite the British Museum. Some of Alfie’s landscapes were later exhibited at the Royal Academy but the body of work he is believed to have produced has yet to be found.
While out on a boat trip on the River Thames with his brother Lionel, Alfie died in 1853 in a tragic accident which his younger brother Lionel survived – see below.
Lionel Bicknell Constable 1828-1887
Lionel was born in the year his mother Maria died and life was difficult for him from the start. Having no memory of his mother, his attachments were to his father, his sister Maria Louisa and his nanny Mrs Elizabeth Roberts. To start with he was educated at home by the family tutor, Charles Boner, before attending a Mrs Rawley’s *Dame School. He completed his education at the same school as his brother Alfie in Hampstead and thought he might become a farmer before deciding to study art at Carry’s Academy in London.
Lionel was the most talented of all the Constable children and exhibited his work four times at the Royal Academy. It seems that Lionel learnt to paint landscapes by studying his father’s work – although his work is smaller scale, quieter and more intimate. Although he rarely painted the same places as his father, his work has been mistaken for that of his father. The painting below was one of a number of paintings which, until the late 1970s, was mistakenly thought to have been painted by John Constable himself. In fact Lionel’s touch was more tentative than his father’s, and the overall effect more decorative.
As an artist Lionel was unusual in that, although he exhibited at the Royal Academy as a professional and made attempts to sell his work, he did not depend on painting for a living. This meant he was able to give it up when interest, nerve, will or whatever failed him after his brother Alfred’s tragic death in 1853. Lionel’s career as a painter was very short – perhaps 8 years ending in his mid 20s.
The sketch of Lionel above is owned by the Tate Gallery – to find out more click Lionel Bicknell Constable
Lionel and his brother Alfie were involved in a boating accident on the River Thames. Although the young men could swim, Alfie did not make it to shore in the freezing water and died. Lionel survived the accident but afterwards suffered a stroke. For the rest of his life Lionel concentrated on carpentry, photography, sailing and making fireworks. He died in 1853, aged fifty.
*Dame Schools were the pre-cursers to Infant and Primary Schools. Run by women, the schools were usually the teacher’s home. Children were taught the alphabet, spelling, the New Testament and some household chores. The inadequacies of Dame schools in England were illustrated by a study conducted in 1838 by the Statistical Society of London which found nearly half of all pupils surveyed were only taught spelling, with a negligible number being taught mathematics and grammar. Dame schools became less common in Britain after the introduction of compulsory education in 1870, where after schools that were found to be below government-specified standards of tuition were closed.