Summary

Maria Elizabeth Bicknell (1788-1828) was a daughter of Charles Bicknell, Solicitor to the Admiralty, and his second wife, Maria Elizabeth Rhudde. Maria Rhudde's father, the Revd Dr Rhudde, was rector of East Bergholt with Great Wenham, and also of Brantham, Suffolk, as well as a chaplain in ordinary to George III. According to Constable's biographer C.R. Leslie, the artist first met his future wife in 1800 when she was staying with her grandfather Dr Rhudde at East Bergholt rectory (Leslie, ed. J. Mayne, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, London 1951, p.25). Judging by Maria's apparent age (surely no more than twenty-one), this drawing was made no later than 1809 and quite possibly a few years before that. By 1809 a close attachment existed, at least on Constable's side; however, their marriage was delayed until 1816, largely because Maria's family, and especially Dr Rhudde, disapproved of their association. In February 1816 Constable wrote to Maria,

How unfortunate that I should have [been the] cause of bringing all into [the] situation I did with the wretched Doctor - but let us for ever dismiss the grievous side of the subject ... I am happy in love - an affection exceeding a thousand times my deserts, which has continued so many years, and is yet undiminished ... Never will I marry in this world if I marry not you. Truly can I say that for the seven years since I avowed my love for you, I have never done any thing that I have considered could have made you any way uncomfortable ...

(R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constable's Correspondence, II, Ipswich 1964, p.179)

The couple were finally married on 2 October 1816 at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. The Constables eventually had seven children. Maria, who suffered from poor health, died of tuberculosis in 1828. In a letter to his brother Golding of 19 December 1828, Constable wrote, 'I shall never feel again as I have felt, the face of the World is totally changed to me' (Leslie, ed. A. Shirley, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, R.A., London 1937, p.234).

Also in the Tate Gallery is an oil portrait of Maria (Tate Gallery N02655) made shortly after the couple had decided to marry. The Tate also owns the oil portrait Maria Constable with Two of her Children (c.1820, Tate Gallery T03903). An unfinished oil painting of Maria with three of her children is still in the Constable family collection, as is a drawing thought to show her in the last years of her life.

Further reading:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981, pp.69-70
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, p.18, reproduced
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, reproduced p.21

Terry Riggs
February 1998