If you own an original John Constable painting you could swap it for a country estate. Even the smaller ones are worth many millions of pounds. The quintessentially English painter was highly esteemed while alive though he probably never knew how immortal his work would become. Unless there’s a fire at The National Gallery in London his paintings will remain immortal however painters have to die. Here I am outside a glass office block which doesn’t bear a plaque pointing out that John lived and died here. The previous time I walked up Charlotte Street the place was boarded up and not worthy of a photo. It’s not worthy of one now; sadly the establishment hasn’t become something inspiring like an art gallery or pole-dancing/mud-wrestling paradise but office space.
John was born into a wealthy family, his dad owning mills that processed corn. There was even a family ship moored on the Stour estuary (to move corn around.) As a lad he loved getting round rural Suffolk and Essex and drawing scenes. He had a two brothers (one was disabled) and was being groomed to run the family business. He met a professional artist who advised him to take up painting but keep working while his talent developed. He did this and was 23 when he persuaded his dad to allow him to try painting professionally. His dad gave him a small allowance and he joined the Royal Academy School to study anatomical dissections and nudes. Much of this was a waste of time as he ended up doing landscapes.
He must have been a natural painter as he was only 27 when he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy. He liked the human touch and wasn’t keen on painting landscapes alone. He populated them with farmers, workers, cottages, churches and farm buildings. To make money his painted portraits but was never comfortable with the subjects. Aged 40 he married Maria who he’s known for many years but her family were snobs and thought the Constables below them socially. When John’s parents died he inherited a fifth share in the family business. A bit of money always helps a marriage doesn’t it? It was while on honeymoon on the south coast that his painting improved drastically. The surroundings made him use bolder colours and use more vivid brush strokes.
He'd collapse now if he could see how near-priceless his paintings have become as he made little money - and he needed it as he and Maria produced seven children. In his whole life he sold about fifty paintings and it took him till he was about forty to sell the first one. He soon started doing his “six footers” (which you can see in the Nationally Gallery in Trafalgar Square) but struggled to sell them. Oddly his English scenes were more popular in France and he only ever sold 20 paintings in England.
His wife Maria inherited £20,000 from her rich dad but sadly they never got to enjoy it. She died of tuberculosis aged just 41 and John lost the money by investing naively. Afterward her death he wore black and mourned his wife profoundly. For the remainder of his life he cared for his seven children alone and didn’t look for love again. He died at the family home and I’m stood outside the site. He died of a heart attack through the night on Friday 31st March 1837 aged 60. He joined Maria in a grave in Hampstead (two of their kids would eventually join them.) There was a plaque on the house once but it’s not there now.
I looked up at the office windows. Someone probably called Kylie or Kai will be sat at a screen selling adverting space without knowing they’re occupying the spot where a world famous painter exhaled their last lungful of oxygen. I stood outside the door knowing this brill painter must have walked over that exact spot countless times. I’ve looked at his “six-footers” in the Nationally Gallery and nobody can paint clouds like he did. When I paint the clouds they look like rotting mashed potatoes. His grave is on my list; he’s well worth a visit and a hearty salute.
I’m stood outside the building, looking right…