Black & white reproduction of a painting by John Constable thought to be of Elizabeth Roberts

Maria Constable was pregnant for most of her twelve year marriage to John Constable. She had difficulty feeding her babies because of her poor health (she probably suffered from TB for most of her married life) and continual pregnancies. 

Maria enjoyed looking after her first two children but as more babies were born she was not be able to look after all her children all the time.

Mrs Roberts with the Constable children

The sketch above is by John Constable and is owned by the British Museum

By 1821 Maria had suffered a miscarriage, two live births and was pregnant with her third child. 

Mrs Elizabeth Roberts was appointed as nanny, nurse and governess to the Constable family in that same year.

The  Constable children loved their nanny Elizabeth Roberts – they called her Bobs and Lady Ribbons and they looked to her for many of the things Maria could not provide.

Mrs Roberts worried constantly about the growing family of Constable children whose health was weak and demanded a great deal of attention. 

Nurse to the Constables

Scarlet fever was the biggest killer of children at this time.

  • Minna (Maria-Louisa) became dangerously ill with the disease in her early teens but survived it. 

  • Emily (who had been born prematurely) died of the disease at the age of fourteen

  • Delicate, sickly John-Charles who having recovered from rheumatic fever, died of scarlet fever while a university student.

  • Alfie (also born prematurely) became seriously ill with whooping cough as a baby –  he eventually recovered but was killed in a boating accident in his early twenties.

The children’s mother suffered from tuberculosis, dying at the age of forty one a few months after the birth of her seventh child Lionel who like his older brother Alfie, had no memory of his mother.

Holding the family together

Mrs Roberts held the household together until John Constable’s death in 1837. She became a permanent resident with the Constable family and travelled wherever the children went – for example:

  • Brighton in 1824 – when John Constable sent Maria to the seaside to improve her health, Mrs Roberts and Ellen (their chief maid) went with Maria and the children
  • Brighton in 1834 – Mrs Roberts took the sickly eldest son, John Charles to Brighton to recuperate from rheumatic fever
  • Folkestone in 1832 when Charley(Charles Golding) started at his new school, Mrs Roberts wrote to him just before his birthday reminding him to attend to his studies, not to get salt on his clothes and to write to his sister Emily who would be eight the same day he would be twelve. She sent parcels to the two older boys when John joined his brother at the Folkestone school
  • Portsmouth in 1835 – Mrs Roberts accompanied John and Alfie Constable, when Charley (Charles Golding) went to sea for the first time aged fourteen

After John Constable’s death on 31 March 1837  Mrs Roberts continued to live with the family where her duties included:

  • Unlocking the Constable studio and showing paintings to potential purchasers
  • Visiting the Constable children at their schools

Family appreciation

Family letters were effusive in their appreciation of their nanny. Mrs Roberts was mentioned in Constable children’s correspondence until 1962  long after their father’s death in 1837.

  • Charley wrote from Portsmouth ending “Tell Bob she made me very comfortable, what should I have done without her.”
  • Abram wrote to his nephew Charley (Charles Golding) in 1839 “She is a valuable friend and millions would not purchase such a one”
  • John Constable wrote in 1836 – when Mrs Roberts was unable to work due to severe rheumatism – that he felt truly helpless