March 4, 2009 / 4:50 PM / 10 years ago

"New" portraits by John Constable discovered

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The curators of a new exhibition on John Constable say they have unearthed two works that were previously wrongly attributed but are in fact portraits of his parents by the British landscapist.

A portrait of Ann, Constable’s mother, is by the artist and not another painter as originally thought, while the man in the second portrait is his father Golding and not Constable’s schoolmaster Thomas Grimwood, the curators said.

“We started looking into the history of the picture and there was no record that he ever painted his schoolmaster,” said Anne Lyles, an authority on the works of Constable who with writer and critic Martin Gayford made the discoveries.

The portrait of Golding, painted in around 1805, is featured in a new exhibition “Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle” at London’s National Portrait Gallery, where it hangs near another portrayal of his father who has similar features.

“Then we had this resemblance and in all probability it’s a pair,” Lyles told Reuters.

The picture of Ann was not included in the exhibition because it was in poor condition, she added.

The portraits were sold at auctioneer Sotheby’s in 1926 by a descendant of Constable, and the same year the buyer donated them to the Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service where they have remained ever since.

The co-curators believe they were both misidentified at the auction, leading to confusion over who painted one and who was painted in the other.


The exhibition, which runs from March 5 to June 14, focuses on Constable’s often overlooked work as a portrait painter. He remains best known for landscapes like The Hay Wain.

Organizers said it was the first show dedicated to Constable’s portraits and what they tell us about the artist’s life and relationships.

They include pictures of family members and friends and shed light on his social network and circle of contemporaries.

“Ladies of the Mason Family” (1805/6), for example, depicts the women in the family of a local solicitor who was married to Constable’s cousin.

It underlines how Constable tended to paint what the exhibition called the “Jane Austen set” — clergymen, landed gentry, lawyers and doctors who come largely from middle class Britain rather than grandees or royalty.

Appearing in several portraits is Maria Bicknell, who Constable married after a long courtship in 1816 despite fierce resistance from her family who were concerned that an artist would be unable to support her.

The years following the marriage were happy ones for Constable and his rapidly expanding family, but Maria died in 1828 after the birth of her seventh child and the loss clouded the rest of the artist’s life.

One small portrait dated 1835-6 depicts one of his sons, Charles, who at the age of 14 went to sea.

It was probably the last portrait Constable painted, and at the time of his son’s departure the artist wrote “my heart is broken.” Constable died in 1837.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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