Constable: A Portrait by James Hamilton - review by Susan Owens

Susan Owens

The Long Road to the Royal Academy

Constable: A Portrait


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 472pp £25

John Constable, as James Hamilton observes in the introduction of his absorbing Constable: A Portrait, was an unlikely revolutionary. He was a reactionary Tory who thought of political reformers as ‘the devil’s viceregents on earth’. He did not, says Hamilton, ‘get drunk at Royal Academy dinners, insult his elders and scandalise’. Neither was he a visionary outsider like William Blake. When Blake admired his sketches, exclaiming ‘this is not drawing but inspiration’, Constable sarcastically replied that he had, actually, meant them to be drawings. Yet despite being a natural member of the establishment, Constable’s revolutionary vision meant that the branch of it to which he so desperately wanted to belong kept the door closed to him for an inordinately long time. Constable was forty-three by the time he scraped enough votes to become an associate of the Royal Academy (his rival and near-contemporary J M W Turner was elected at twenty-four), and was not elected to full membership until he was fifty-two (Turner had been just twenty-six). But it was precisely Constable’s innate conservatism that made him determined to be accepted. The story of his life is the story of the dogged way in which he kept

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