Self portrait by John Constable, pencil and black chalk heightened with white and red chalk, circa 1799-1804

John Constable - self portrait 1799

Self portrait in pencil and black chalk - National Portrait Gallery

On leaving Dedham Grammar School, John Constable spent seven years working in his father’s offices and mills.

John’s main job was keeping his father’s East Bergholt windmill which entailed him in close observtion of skies in order to predict the wind conditions – and hence trim the sails appropriately. This discipline proved invaluable to him when he came to paint the skies in his Suffolk paintings and for which he became famous in adult life.

John’s mother, Ann was well aware of her son’s ambitions as an artist and introduced him to Sir George Beaumont*, an amateur artist and art collector, whose mother lived in nearby Dedham. When the nineteen year old John Constable showed Beaumont some of his pen and ink sketches, Beaumont showed Constable a small picture called Hagar and the Angel – an Italianate landscape with a bright sky, painted in 1646 by Claude Lorraine. Seeing this painting had a lifelong effect on Constable’s development as a painter of landscapes.

*Lord Beaumont was an influential figure and possibly eased Constable’s student entry into the Royal Academy.

Royal Academy at Somerset House

Painting of Exhibition Room - Royal Academy at Somerset House by Rowlandson - 18th Century

Summer Exhibition

John’s father only agreed to pay for John’s studies at the Royal Academy of Art because John’s younger brother Abram Constable agreed to take over the running of the business on behalf of the family.

At the age of twenty three, John was considerably older than most art students – for example his contemporary (and arch-rival) JMW Turner began his studies at the age of thirteen.

At this time, the Royal Academy was based at Somerset House and provided training in drawing rather than the full range of artistic forms that we associate with it now. Major exhibitions were held every year, every bit as crammed with art-works as the Summer Exhibition today (see image above) and both Turner and Constable exhibited work there most years in the hope of becoming better known as there were so few public art galleries at this time.

Hardworking but homesick

While John Constable was a diligent and conscientious college student, he was also homesick. His loving family sent him letters and baskets of food (via the family barge transport and via stage-coach) and kept him in touch with the news in his home village of East Bergholt. Constable enjoyed a more privileged life than some of his contemporaries because he received financial support from his affluent parents and was not so dependent on selling his work as they were.

Constable's London Circle

As a student and young artist, Constable enjoyed a wide social circle in London, largely funded by his family and not the sale of his art works – the actor David Garrick and Rev John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury Cathedral were among his friends.

Rev Dr John Fisher had connections with high society. He was chaplain to George III, Canon of St George’s Chapel and was known as the King’s Fisher due to his royal connections. He was also Rector of Langham Church in Essex (close to East Bergholt where Constable lived). His high connections meant he was able to act advise the young Constable and act as patron buying several of his paintings. He presided at Constable’s wedding. His nephew Rev John Fisher became Constable’s closest friend accompanied the Constables on their honeymoon. Her became Canon of Salisbury but died in 1832 which was a great blow to John Constable.

Painting of Bishop of Salisbury John Fisher by John Constable 1816 - Fitzwilliam Museum

Rev Dr John Fisher by John Constable 1816

Epiphany for student John Constable!

While studying at the Royal Academy, John did what all students do, which is copy the work of artists from the past.  After about two years he had an epiphany about his destiny  – he  realised that his destiny was to paint a ‘truth’ about life based on his own feelings/reactions to the natural world rather than following the strict, classical dictacts of the Royal Academy. So he could capture his response to reality as honestly as possible, he chose to paint the part of the world he knew and loved the best – the Stour Valley in Suffolk. 

“I should paint my own places best – painting is but another word for feeling ………still Nature is the fountain’s head, the source from where all originally must spring – and should an artist continue his practice without referring to nature he must soon form a ‘manner’ and be reduced ….. for these two years past I have been running after pictures and seeking the truth second hand, in other people’s art……… Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims on posterity…” (letter written by John Constable in 1802 to his childhood friend, John Dunthorne)