William Feaver

Dilly-dallying romance

Constable in Love, by Martin Gayford

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Constable in Love

Martin Gayford

Penguin/Fig Tree, pp. 370, £

Translated to Borsetshire, John Constable’s courtship of Maria Bicknell would provide more material than any script editor could handle without straining audience impatience beyond endurance. Nine years it took, from initial yearnings and tacit engagement to get them to the altar at St Martin-in-the-Fields and even then, in October 1816, it was the quietest of weddings. Over those years Constable’s ardour was divided. ‘Deplorable as our case is, I would not be without it for the world’, he wrote to his beloved early on when she was at her most inaccessible. That left him plenty of time in which to obsess over his art.

Martin Gayford has an eye for emotionally-charged episodes or ‘detailed microbiography’, as he puts it, set in and around art history. Previously he went into the details of Van Gogh’s disastrous house-share with Gauguin. This time it’s a story even richer in vicissitudes: chapter after chapter leading up to the marriage followed by a mere seven pages of happy-ever-after until 1828 when consumption and excessive child-bearing put an end to poor Maria. The locations are few. There’s the Bicknell residence in Spring Gardens Terrace (off what is now Trafalgar Square), not to be confused with Spring Grove in Worcestershire where Maria was sent to stay with her half- sister, Sarah Skey, at a presumed safe distance from her ineligible swain. And there’s East Bergholt, Ambridge-like in its wealth of stereotypical characters, such as the Grundy-ish Dunthornes, presumed by their betters to be a bad influence on Constable, the handsome young miller’s son from a family that, Archers-like, had gone up in the world.

Though horny-handed from operating his windmills, John’s father, Golding Constable, had become a landowner and barge operator, prosperous enough to command respect locally but insufficiently genteel to qualify as a suitable father-in-law to Maria, grand-daughter of the rector, Dr Rhudde, a distinguished pluralist, one of whose curates, a Mr Kebell, was deemed a more suitable life partner for her than a painter without prospects, well into his thirties, who maundered around the parish every summer sketching donkeys and dock leaves. Confusing? Maybe, but this is the Gayford method and it swells the plot. Extracting from the Constable letters and literature details with which to fill out the love story and prompt digressions, he delves into byways stretching far beyond East Bergholt and into spheres of interest as diverse as the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the amours of Princess Charlotte and the brewing of sulphuric acid.

‘Think less & finish as you go’, Golding Constable kept telling his singularly unsuccessful son, leaving it to Anne, his wife, to comment shrewdly on the ‘continual molestation’ of his long-drawn-out courtship proceedings. Gayford enlivens his tale with references to natural impulse cultivated by Wordsworth and Rousseau and fictional impulse monitored by Catherine Morland. He brings in the paintings too, using them illustratively. But, gentle reader, as you wend your way through this well-rehearsed tale of love on the back-burner and sheer dilly-dally, you may feel like shouting at the principal characters to get on with it.