When Constable came to Tattingstone …
It was in the year 1812 when John Constable was eager to marry his sweetheart Maria Bicknell that his mother wrote to him about a commission to paint a full length portrait of the owner of Tattingstone Place, Captain Thomas Western in his naval uniform. Now Constable was not yet famous enough to be making a good living out of his art to be a viable suitor in the eyes of the Bicknell family. Maria’s family were of very good standing: her father was the Solicitor to George IV and the Admiralty and her grandfather was the Rector at East Bergholt and it is he who was most opposed to them marrying - he actually considered the Constables his social inferiors and threatened Maria with disinheritance.
Constable much preferred painting landscapes, but in order to make a living and hope to please his would-be future in laws he reluctantly agreed to do the portrait. His mother was keen too as she thought “to pursue a path” in portrait painting would bring her son “fame and gain – by which he could maintain with respectability the fair object of his best and fondest hopes”!!
So In January of 1813 Constable came to our village and in his own words he wrote to Maria “I think I may be detained a month in Suffolk, as Captain Western is a very large subject.”!!
However that was not the end of it because within 18 months the Captain had been promoted to Rear Admiral and Constable was summoned back to repaint the uniform and “this occupied him for several days before he could get down to his nature studies” showing yet again Constable’s own reluctance for portraiture! Although Constable had several commissions for socially prominent sitters, the finished works revealed his unsuitability for formal portraiture. Although his painting of the Rear Admiral was appropriate enough at the time because a heroic figure suited the then patriotism as Britain was beating Napoleon Bonaparte, it was not considered a great piece of art. It is said of the work that Constable had produced a rather uncomfortable looking middle aged man whose legs seem to belong to somebody else’s body! And Constable himself was not perhaps taking it seriously enough because in a letter to Maria he wrote “I must procure a supply of the crimson, ruddy and purple tints and of the deepest dye” as a reference to the sitter’s weather blown complexion!
As well as this portrait, while Constable was in Tattingstone he made four sketches of St Mary’s Church in his now famous sketchbooks. As they are all from the south east side, it can only be assumed that he must have taken a stroll from Tattingstone Place across the fields to see the church from this angle. Although Constable used his sketches in his larger works, it is not known if any from Tattingstone were used again.
And there is a happy ending because the two who had fallen in love in 1809 finally married in 1816.
The portrait of Rear Admiral Western is in a private collection but can be seen on http://www.artnet.com/artists/john-constable/portrait-of-rear-admiral-thomas-western-SUicrTtrtPM9F3yZlKw8tQ2. The sketchbooks are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and also on their website http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O125849/constables-sketchbook-sketchbook-constable-john-ra/.