Constable, who was a charming and warm-hearted man, as well as a genius, was fond of pointing out: “No two days were alike. Not even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves alike since the creation of the world.” When you look at his outdoor art, the remark makes all the sense in the world. Anyone who has trawled through the V&A’s huge hoard of Constable sketches will know also that no two clouds were similar in his eyes. On and on he painted them, like a determined spinster obsessing over her knitting. The tiniest bit of progress would be noted and appreciated.
This fondness for the smallest difference, this caring vision of his, bore its most obvious fruit in his landscapes, which seem to be patting nature on the back for being so varied and true. Well done, English oak. Well done, English river. There’s a warm glow to Constable’s observations of nature. The acts of describing the landscape and praising it appear to co-mingle.
But where do these same warm glows and unmissable personal involvements lead in his portraiture? Because an often forgotten truth about Constable is that he was a substantial portraitist. There are something like 100 portraits in his known oeuvre. That is not a sideline. That is a big artistic commitment. It is, therefore, an inspired decision by the National Portrait Gallery to examine this portraiture in detail and seek to weigh up its final value. It makes you wonder why nobody has done it before.
Actually, I believe I know the answer. Those who attended the magnificent Constable tribute that Lucian Freud selected for Paris in 2002 will probably remember, as I do, how the portraits seemed to let down the rest of the show. Freud insisted in the catalogue that Constable’s portraiture was undervalued, but the evidence of the works he chose argued otherwise: over-large eyes, awkward anatomies, wooden poses. The reason why nobody has tackled Constable’s portraits before is, I suggest, because we all assumed they were awful.
How delightful, therefore, to discover they are not. Constable achieved important things in portraiture, and Constable Portraits is the best kind of exhibition you can have: an opinion-changing display. Not that he was a natural portraitist. Far from it. That sunny rural childhood in Suffolk may have prepared him splendidly for the watching of trees, streams and seasons, but it did little for his grasp of female face structures or the darker workings of the human mind. Constable never became an intense portraitist or a dramatic one. However, after a clumsy beginning, he grew into one you know you can trust, who recorded a type of sitter for us that English art usually ignored.
When he wasn’t painting friends and loved ones, he turned to parsons’ wives, schoolteachers, mill-owners and vicars. George Eliot or Jane Austen may have written about these pious and respectable pillars of rural society, but who else painted them? One of the delights of this event is watching Constable growing in assurance as a recorder of stern and respectable English womenfolk; and by the time he paints the multibonneted Mrs Tuder in 1818, or the formidable Mrs Edwards, we need no longer make any excuses for any of his weaknesses. Because there aren’t any. See how perfectly he captures the landlady within.