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John Constable’s struggle to become a Royal Academician

Published 21 December 2021

If you have ever struggled for the acceptance and glory you obviously deserve, take heart from this story of John Constable RA’s decades-long struggle to become a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

  • When you see John Constable’s work on the walls of our national museums and galleries, it’s easy to imagine his rise to stardom was inevitable. But Constable initially seemed destined for a career in his family business – born in rural Suffolk, he worked for his father, a mill owner and merchant. Luckily Constable’s mother nurtured her son’s burgeoning artistic talent, winning him the patronage of their neighbour, the art collector Sir George Beaumont. Beaumont used his influence to help Constable’s entry into the RA Schools, where at the age of 23 the artist was already considerably older than most other students.

  • Charles Robert Leslie, John Constable, R.A

    Charles Robert Leslie, John Constable, R.A, c. 1830.

    Oil on board. 18.2 x 13.7 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Given by Isabel Constable 1886. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: John Hammond.

  • Despite studying at the RA Schools from 1800 and exhibiting at the RA’s annual exhibition (now known as the Summer Exhibition) from 1802, Constable’s first real breakthrough at the institution did not come until 1819. This is when he began exhibiting his ‘Six-Footers’ – huge six-foot exhibition canvases which Constable created especially for the annual show. The first of these, The White Horse (1819), made an impact, with one critic enthusing:

    “This young artist is rising very fast in reputation, and we do predict, that he will anon be at the very top of that line of the art, of which the present picture forms so beautiful an ornament.”

    Constable, a not-so-young 43, was indeed elected an Associate of the Royal Academy on 1 November that year, the first step in becoming a full member of the RA. Yet despite this stamp of approval, Constable would spend a decade on the side-lines while other artists were ushered in ahead of him as full members. There could only be 40 full Royal Academicians at any time, so competition was fierce to be part of the country’s ultimate art club. On the first occasion he put his name forward for election, poor Constable received no votes at all.

  • John Constable RA, Hadleigh Castle

    John Constable RA, Hadleigh Castle, 1829.

    Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 164.5 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven. Photo © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, New Haven.

  • Constable’s lack of popularity stemmed from the consensus in the art world at this time that landscape painting was less prestigious than history painting and even portraiture. The characterisation of Constable’s work as a mere reflection of nature, rather than a poetic response to it, did not help his cause. Considering another attempt to become an RA in 1829, he admitted in a letter to having “little heart to face an ordeal … from some ‘highminded’ members who stickle for the ‘elevated & noble’ walks of art… preferring the shaggy posteriors of a Satyr to the moral feeling of landscape”

    Rather than currying favour with Academicians, Constable continued to pour all his efforts into his ‘Six-Footers’. This approach eventually paid off when he was elected RA in February 1829. Even then, it was a close call and in the final round he won by a single vote. This win was bittersweet; the RA’s President, Sir Thomas Lawrence, commented that Constable was “fortunate” to be elected when so many talented historical painters were on the list.

  • John Constable RA, A Boat Passing a Lock

    John Constable RA, A Boat Passing a Lock, 1826.

    Oil on canvas. 101.6 x 127 cm. Royal Academy of Arts, London. Diploma Work given by John Constable RA, accepted 1829. Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London; photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • Once elected, he put a decade’s resentment aside to play an active role at the institution. He still felt some apprehension over his reception, however, confessing to being “grievously nervous” about Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames - Morning after a Stormy Night, the painting he was preparing for the RA Summer Exhibition. He also took pains over his RA Diploma work, which all Academicians must submit to the RA Collection, selecting A Boat Passing a Lock (1826) despite the fact that he had already sold it to a friend!

    Full immersion in the life of the Academy came in 1830 when Constable took his place on Council. This executive committee decided on everything from arrangements for the annual exhibition and the distribution of charity to how many bottles of sherry were needed for the cellar.

  • Constable’s lack of popularity stemmed from the consensus in the art world at this time that landscape painting was less prestigious than history painting and even portraiture.

  • A lesser known aspect of Constable’s engagement with the Academy was his role as a teacher. Academicians were expected to teach as ‘Visitors’ in the Schools on rotation but it was not required and it was unusual for landscape painters. Constable – like J.W, Turner before him – was keen to challenge this, teaching the Life Class and in the Painting School for three stints between 1831 and 1837. Their involvement drew some negative comment but both were well-liked teachers.

    In 1836 the Academy was bustling with arrangements for its move from Somerset House to the east side of the recently built National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square. In the last exhibition to be held at Somerset House, Constable exhibited just one oil painting. Appropriately, it was The Cenotaph (1833-36), an elegiac tribute to Sir Joshua Reynolds (first President of the Royal Academy) and to Constable’s mentor, Beaumont. The artist commented that he wished to see their names together in the catalogue one last time.

    Sadly, he was not to see how the Academy fared in its new home; he died unexpectedly from heart failure on 1 April 1837. Just a week beforehand, he had presided over the last life class to be held at Somerset House, during which he gave a speech celebrating the ‘Old House’ and the Academy as the “cradle of British art”. Remarkably, given his rocky start at the Academy, Constable had ended his days as a loyal member of the institution looking back with nostalgia on its past achievements. He remains one of the Academy’s most famous Members.

    • John Constable RA , Rainstorm over the Sea

      Book tickets to 'Late Constable'

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