There is nothing thrilling or romantic in the love story of John Constable. It is quite, quite ordinary. But then, delirious, wonderful adventures are not solely the prerogative of greatness.
Love is sublimely democratic. Even the very little man sometimes has his big romance. Whilst the big man often has his humdrum little love affairs. And it is a mistake to regard them as unimportant or devoid of interest. In spite of what the cynic says - and his is a perverted wisdom - love still remains the supreme incentive to ambition and achievement. Constable, at any rate, found it to be such; indeed, love made him the great painter he became.
And this is a very slight exaggeration.
Genius, Carlyle has said, consists primarily in "the transcendent capacity for taking trouble." Now, it was love which made Constable take trouble, love which gave him determination and a purpose in life; love for his art, it is true, but also love for a woman, and an ever present longing to win that woman for himself.
John Constable first met Maria Bicknell in the year 1800. He was then in his twenty-fifth year, but as yet had done nothing in life save play to perfection the part of the proverbial rolling stone. He left school intending to take Orders, but, at the eleventh hour, changed his mind, and decided instead to accept employment in his father's mills at East Bergholt, in Suffolk. But of milling he soon grew weary; for one year he endured it; then he set out for London to study art.
And as a painter he seemed likely to fail even more dismally than as miller. Indeed, before long, he lost faith in himself and again went back to his father's mills. But then something must have happened to re-inspire his confidence, for "in the year 1799," Leslie, his biographer, writes, "John Constable resumed his pencil, never again to lay it aside."
Perhaps gradually the boy had come to realise that, in spite of all, art was his true vocation, and that, if he persevered, he would eventually succeed. At any rate, he set to work now as he had never worked before; he ceased to play with art; he began realty to study it, determined to justify himself.
Then, in the following year, he met Maria Bicknell. And she spurred on his good endeavours. Although only quite a child, somehow she attracted the young artist irresistibly; he found himself idealising her, and dreaming glorious dreams of a future when he would be a famous artist and she - or rather the woman that soon she would become - his wife. For he had not fallen in love with her - yet; he had merely fallen in love with an idea - the idea of loving. Such happenings do occur sometimes.
But, alas! determination in itself is not the golden road to fame. Indeed, there is no golden road; every way is beset with obstacles, jealousy, public opinion, prejudice, and they are by no means easy to surmount. Indeed, not until 1814, and he was then thirty-eight years old, did Constable succeed in finding a market for his landscapes.
In the meanwhile he was forced to eke out a beggarly livelihood painting and copying portraits. And he hated the work. But still he did it, since necessity forbids men to be choosers. For ten long years he toiled, and during all this while, apparently, approached no nearer to his goal. Indeed, the great dream of his life, his dream of love, seemed ever to be receding in the distance, until at length despair entered his heart. He became really love sick, ill in body, ill in mind. The burden of disappointed hope was crushing him. But then - Maria Bicknell again crossed his path; and saved him.
It was in 1811. He went down to East Bergholt in the summer to spend a few weeks with his parents. Maria, too, was staying in the neighbourhood; in fact, at the house of her grandfather, Dr. Rhudde, the rector. Naturally, therefore, the young people met, and, needless to say, fell in love immediately.
But Dr. Rhudde forthwith ordered them to fall out again. He refused even to sanction an acquaintanceship. That his granddaughter should wish to marry a reckless young artist, without prospects, without even an income - the idea seemed utterly ridiculous; he would not hear of it. Besides, no doubt he did not publicly proclaim this as a reason - the artist in question happened to be none other than the son of Golding Constable, his neighbour and pet enemy, and it was more even than the good doctor's Christian charity could tolerate to allow a relative of his to marry a son of that man. He put his foot down firmly.
Now, in matters relating to Maria, his will was law. Mr. Bicknell, himself quite well disposed towards Constable, dared not oppose it, for the doctor was a wealthy man and had named Maria as his heiress. Forthwith, therefore, the lovers were parted, parted peremptorily.
Then Constable returned to London, sorrowful at heart. It had come to him as a cruel blow, this mandate of Dr. Rhudde. And yet, such a disappointment was, as a matter of fact, exactly what he needed. His pride had been wounded more than his heart, and a wounded pride serves as a wonderful stimulant to endeavour. At any rate, it aroused John Constable decisively. He refused to be frustrated by the unreasonable opposition of Dr. Rhudde. He must win the lady of his heart. He would!
Nor, indeed, did he despair. And immediately after his return to London called boldly at the house in Spring Gardens where the Bicknells lived. Here, somewhat to his surprise, he was received quite graciously. But, alas! he did not see Maria; she had just left home to pay a visit in the country. But Mr. Bicknell gave him her address and frankly told him he might write to her.
To Constable this concession spelled joy indeed. Gleefully he sent the glad tidings to his mother. And she rejoiced with him. "The Bicknells," she wrote, "are too good, too honourable to trifle with your feelings; therefore I am inclined to hope for the best, that it will end well."