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John Constable was born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, in 1776, the son of a prosperous corn and coal merchant. He was intended for the family business, centred on mills at Flatford and Dedham on the River Stour, but early on in life determined to become a painter.

He was taught painting as a boy by a local amateur artist, the plumber and glazier John Dunthorne, and in 1799 joined the Royal Academy Schools in London. In 1802 he exhibited his first painting at the Academy. This was a landscape and seeing it alongside the often formulaic work of other painters he decided he needed to work from nature, ‘the fountain’s head, the source from whence all originality must spring’.

Constable worked each summer in Suffolk, painting the landscape of his childhood. In 1802 he made his first oil studies out-of-doors, while continuing to study old masters such as Claude Lorrain and Gainsborough. Although his parents preferred him to paint portraits, a more lucrative practice, Constable’s main concern was to paint the local landscape. From 1808 he returned to plein air (open air) painting in oils, a practice he continued throughout his career. These studies were often used to create his then modestly-sized exhibition works in his London studio.

In 1814, in The Ferry, Constable worked on a larger scale, and the picture drew a fair amount of negative criticism. He was struggling to resolve the demands of detail and composition and was now facing his first serious crisis as a painter.

Works on display

John Constable, Self-Portrait 1806

Pencil on wove paper © Tate

Constable’s biographer said that, as a young man working at his father’s mill, the artist was known as ‘the handsome miller’, on account of his ‘muscular strength…good features, a fresh complexion, and fine dark eyes…’

This pencil drawing was made in London seven years after Constable had first started training as an artist. It has the rich tonal style he had first developed in his landscape sketches.

Most of what we know about Constable’s personality comes from his letters. These show an emotional and affectionate man who was also capable of sarcasm and over-sensitivity.

David Lucas after John Constable, Frontispiece: East Bergholt, Suffolk 1831

Mezzotint engraving on India paper laid on wove paper
© Tate

This engraving is from the series of mezzotints made by David Lucas from Constable’s sketches and paintings. They were published between 1830 and 1832 and collectively known as English Landscape.

Constable wrote texts for the images to explain his ideas about landscape painting. He refers to two kinds of artist: the imitator and the innovator. Written in the aftermath of his belated election to full Royal Academician in 1829 they are a defence of his own innovative approach, which he believed had caused his recognition to be delayed.

In typically personal style, Constable chose the house where he was born as his frontispiece, this corner of Suffolk representing the inspiration for his art.

John Constable, The Church Porch, East Bergholt 1810

Oil on canvas
© Tate

Constable was born in a house very near East Bergholt Church, where his father was a churchwarden and the rector was his future wife’s grandfather. He was first intended for a career as a churchman and was brought up as a devout and loyal Anglican with a strong sense of duty.

This painting is the first oil we are sure he exhibited. Its subject is in a tradition of churchyard literature made famous by Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard 1751, and shows three generations of pensive figures among gravestones, marking the passing of time.

John Constable, Stoke-by-Nayland about 1810–11

Oil on canvas
© Tate

In 1808 Constable resumed oil sketching out-of-doors (en plein air ), a practice used in Europe since the later eighteenth century.

Between 1810 and 1814 he experimented with many supports – canvas, millboard and paper – and with different grounds and handling styles. Here, for instance, the brushstrokes are diagonal in emphasis. His sketches are in many ways equivalents for his intense feelings in front of nature, but they also provided him with artistic subject matter and compositional ideas.

John Constable, A Lane near Flatford about 1810–11

Oil on paper laid on canvas
© Tate

Constable’s oil sketches of landscape subjects often incorporated figures, echoing his biographer, the painter C R Leslie’s view that his art was best when dealing with ‘human associations’. This subject, showing a young boy bending down to slake his thirst in a stream by a lane, was adapted in the mid- 1820s for one of Constable’s most famous exhibited paintings, The Cornfield 1826, now on display in the National Gallery, London. This work has a varied and animated brushwork, evoking the effect of fast-moving clouds and a summer breeze in the trees.

John Constable, Dedham from Langham c.1813

Oil on canvas
Courtesy Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries

John Constable, The Mill Stream about 1810–14

Oil on canvas
© Tate

This work is typical of Constable’s more panoramic Suffolk scenes, as opposed to the close-up views he is often associated with. Dedham Church appears here to the east from elevated ground near Langham village. In many works it is a spiritual as well as a topographical reference point for Constable.

John Constable, The Mill Stream about 1809–14

Oil on board
© Tate

Constable’s more close-up approach to his Suffolk scenes is shown in this oil sketch of the mill stream at Flatford. Here he projects the landscape into depth quite suddenly by using steeply receding perspective lines. These carry the eye towards the two trees which close the view by meeting in the distance.

John Constable, The Mill Stream about 1810–14

Oil on canvas
Courtesy Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries

This is one of Constable’s most celebrated views – the millstream adjacent to his father’s mill at Flatford. The house on the left was lived in by a tenant farmer, Willy Lott, by whose name the house is now known. It is the same view as that of The Hay Wain 1821 (no.37).

This study is based on the oil sketch (above). The ferry shown, which plied between the bank of the mill stream by the house and the far bank of the River Stour, is taken from a sketchbook drawing. The work was engraved for English Landscape in 1831. 

John Constable, Flatford Mill from the Lock about 1810

Oil on paper

This oil sketch is one of many made by Constable in connection with an important early exhibited work of Flatford Mill. It seems to be the first study and shows a lock-keeper opening the lock-gate on the left with mill buildings behind him.

John Constable, Flatford Mill from the Lock 1811

Oil on canvas laid on board
Courtesy David Thomson

By 1811 Constable seems to have decided to work up an exhibition picture of Flatford Mill from earlier sketches. He shows here the viewpoint from the other side of the lock . He introduced trees on the towpath to the right and a glimpse of fields beyond. The trees frame the view.

John Constable, Flatford Mill from the Lock c.1811

Oil on canvas
Courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Constable’s view here pans further to the right from that shown in the previous work. This reveals more of the distant fields but at the expense of the mill buildings on the left.

John Constable, Study for ‘Flatford Mill from the Lock’ c.1811

Oil on canvas
Courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This studio oil sketch combines aspects of Constable’s earlier studies for this view. It retains the deep perspective of no.12 with the framing elements of the buildings and trees, derived from the example of Claude Lorrain’s landscapes. Constable has distorted the topography to achieve a satisfying composition.

John Constable, Flatford Mill from the Lock 1812

Oil on canvas
Courtesy David Thomson

Constable worked on this final exhibited painting of his view of Flatford Mill over a period of about seven months over the winter of 1811-12. At first he retained the figure at the lock-gate, but then painted him out (traces of his red jacket can be seen still). He is replaced by a young angler.

Constable also altered the overall lighting to be less specific as to the time of the day. His aim was to create a more timeless image than that of the preparatory plein air sketches.

John Constable, The Ferry 1814

Oil on canvas

Constable experienced great difficulty in transferring small oil studies on to a much larger scale, as is shown in this painting. He found it hard to balance the demands of an overall ‘breadth’ of composition with the competing requirement of detail and ‘finish’. It was this difficulty which critics often noticed and the artist frequently took their comments to heart.

As a result of the criticism this painting provoked, he returned to making smaller pictures to improve his finishing skills