Can an art critic necessarily dance the tango? Can someone be good at everything? In the case of the Suffolk-born painter John Constable, we approach this show of his portraits with our minds already made up. We know that, like J M W Turner, who came just after him, Constable was no good at people and that he was good – in fact, he was amongst the best - at landscape. In fact, his brilliant skills as a landscape painter – they are often as much moody sketches as paintings - helped to raise the genre to new heights of acceptability. And desirability.
So when we walk around this fairly modest show at the National Portrait Gallery – there are about fifty things to see in all, from the most hasty and impromptu pencil sketch of a soldier casually playing a guitar in front of an admiring female onlooker, to fully worked up, fully made-for-the occasion oils (the occasion was most likely to have been one of those ever pressing bills) of worthy burghers and burgheresses - we know that we are going to come away feeling just a bit disappointed.
Nevertheless, let us look on the bright side. What is there to be praised about this show? Well, it is firmly rooted in the artist’s own biography, as shows of portraits often tend to be, and it tells its story affectingly and entertainingly thanks to a welter of well written captions.
Were you aware that Constable was a delightful writer of English prose? You will be reminded of that fact as you read the various extracts from his notebooks and letters which keep popping up in these captions. Here, for example, is his comment upon an unsaleable etching that was based upon a portrait (executed by himself, and displayed here) of a senior member of the teaching profession called the Revd Dr John Wingfield: ‘No one will buy a schoolmaster. Who would buy the keeper of a treadmill, or a turnkey of Newgate, who has been in either place?’
And then there is the affecting story of John’s often difficult life – his parents’ extreme reluctance to support his wish to be a landscape painter; his long courtship of Maria Bicknell (due to prolonged opposition from the in-laws-to-be), which finally ended, defiantly, and after seven long years, in marriage, in 1816. And then those few brief years of love, which terminated in his wife’s death from tuberculosis, and a heart-rending legacy of seven young mouths to feed. It is all interesting, and humanly moving, and we are genuinely curious about all these things because Constable is a part of our cultural heritage.
But, oh dear, we do keep coming across reminders of the fact that quite a number of these portraits are very bad indeed, wincingly so, and at such times we also marvel at the skill with which the caption writer, seated at his desk in the Circumlocution Office, has managed to avoid quite saying so. Several portraits are described as ‘engaging’ for example, which means that you sort of quite like them, but you know that they are not really very good at all, not really. One portrait of a beefy faced female is praised for its ‘splendid truthfulness’, and we marvel at the length of the caption writer’s life. We look at a painting of a house at sunset, and we are reminded that it was at this very place that Constable made an avowal of love to his young life. ‘It is hard not to see it suffused with emotion’, comments the guiding hand, all a-tremble, of the caption writer.
So in what exactly consisted the incompetence of Constable when he came face to face with living and breathing human flesh? He paints children as if they are rouged dolls, often very stiffly and awkwardly. The worst of all is perhaps his portrait of Master Crosby, dated 1808. Goodness knows what age this boy is meant to be. His stomach has the broad-sweeping girth more appropriate to some fifty-something-year-old port-wine-bibber, while his hands are those of a woman pushing seventy. How many people was Constable staring at when he was scrutinising this boy with the hectic cherry lips?
Fortunately, there are some landscapes nestling amidst these portraits, where we can stand and marvel to our heart’s content.