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ebook / ISBN-13: 9781474612937

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ONE OF THE TIMES AND SUNDAY TIMES’ BEST BOOKS FOR 2022
‘Eye-opening and full of surprises . . . A treasure’ Sunday Times
A biography as rich with colourful characters as any novel’ Telegraph

John Constable, the revolutionary nineteenth-century painter of the landscapes and skies of southern England, is Britain’s best-loved but perhaps least understood artist.

His paintings reflect visions of landscape that shocked and perplexed his contemporaries: attentive to detail, spontaneous in gesture, brave in their use of colour. What we learn from his landscapes is that Constable had sharp local knowledge of Suffolk, a clarity of expression of the skyscapes above Hampstead, an understanding of the human tides in London and Brighton, and a rare ability in his late paintings of Salisbury Cathedral to transform silent suppressed passion into paint.

Yet Constable was also an active and energetic correspondent. His letters and diaries – there are over one thousand letters from and to him – reveal a man of passion, opinion and discord, while his character and personality is concealed behind the high shimmering colour of his paintings. They reveal too the lives and circumstances of his brothers and his sisters, his cousins and his aunts, who serve to define the social and economic landscape against which he can be most clearly seen. These multifaceted reflections draw a sharp picture of the person, as well as the painter.

James Hamilton’s biography reveals a complex, troubled man, and explodes previous mythologies about this timeless artist, and establishes him in his proper context as a giant of European art.

Reviews

The lively art historian James Hamilton reveals the "complex, troubled man" in this biography of the landscape painter John Constable
The Times, Best books coming out in 2022
An eye-opening biography . . This life of the celebrated landscape painter is full of surprises . . . James Hamilton is rightly famed for his biographies of J M W Turner and Thomas Gainsborough . . . the most fascinating pages in Hamilton's book come from his close scrutiny of Constable's canvases . . . its magnificent colour plates lift it on to another plane. They track Constable's career from the early portraits to exciting sky effects like the tempestuous Rainstorm over the Sea, painted in Brighton. Such illustrations make Constable: A Portrait a treasure
John Carey, Sunday Times
One of the many merits of James Hamilton's estimable biography of the painter is to show Constable's long struggle towards acceptance and his insistence, against the evidence, that "there is room enough for a natural painture" . . . As the biographer of Gainsborough and Turner, Hamilton is a practised hand when it comes to 18th- and 19th-century British art, and it shows. He moves deftly between Constable's personal and professional life and the network of relations and patrons that kept him afloat, and he is just as attuned to the radical aspects of Constable's art. In his pictures, as Hamilton shows, nature does not stand decorously stand still but becomes a pulsating, living entity.
Michael Prodger, New Statesman
Absorbing . . . [Hamilton has made] judicious use of Constable's extensive correspondence and other writings, drawing deeply on these rich resources to bring the artist's own words into the heart of his book. Hamilton is particularly illuminating on Constable's early life . . Hamilton brings this period to life . . . Hamilton's young Constable is avid for intellectual companionship and conversation about books, painting and poetry . . . Hamilton is an astute judge of his subject's complex character . . . Constable may be a challenging subject, but Hamilton's deft use of his compelling voice keeps the narrative moving
Susan Owens, Literary Review
[A] major new biography . . . Hamilton seeks here to unpick the over-worn view of Constable as the proto-French plein air Impressionist landscapist and furnishes an elegant portrait of the man, and of his times . . . The outcome is the first full-scale biography . . . Hamilton deftly depicts a mind that evolves out of the drab discipline of his early portraiture and the continuous copying of old masters . . . Hamilton presents, however, not an intellectual rebel, but a man of staunch political rectitude . . . it boasts the sophisticated highly keyed handling of a variegated interwoven cast of characters. There are 124 in all, and he traces their interactions and interconnectedness. The story is written in an often racy narrative and is made up of 47 short, dense and well-footnoted chapters, almost filmic in pace.
Catholic Herald
This beautiful biography captures its subject's enchanting, clever, argumentative personality with considerable grace . . . One of this biography's many pleasures is its descriptions of the wide range of people Constable liked or was interested in . . . Hamilton has also written terrific biographies of both Turner and Gainsborough; and in one of the best works of art history of recent years he explained the 19th-century London art market with superb clarity . . . This expertise makes his discussion of Constable's suspicious and tentative engagement with prints of the great landscapes particularly interesting . . . The sense of London society and of the warm humans who populated it, not least Constable's wonderful wife Maria, have an almost novelistic quality.
Philip Hensher, The Spectator
A biography as rich with colourful characters as any novel . . . As a biographer, Hamilton is a patient, perceptive portraitist, attuned to every swerve in the currents of Constable's life . . . Hamilton captures particularly vividly the timbre of relationships and the textures of Constable's day-to-day life, making you wonder whether "Constable: A Novel" might have been a truer title . . . On a coach back to London from Suffolk in his 50s, [Constable] drew a fellow passenger's attention to Dedham Vale: "Is this not beautiful?" "Yes Sir," came the answer, "this is Constable's country." "I am John Constable," he replied. Unless you're inspired to retrace Hamilton's steps through the hundreds of letters and journal entries on which he has drawn to such rich, multi-vocal effect, Constable: A Portrait will bring you as close as is probably possible to understanding what those four words meant
Sunday Telegraph
Wonderfully deft and vivid . . . This Constable emerges from his travails as a colourful as well as dogged character, with a piquant turn of phrase
Country Life
Delightful, lively and warm-hearted . . . To read this book is to be taken to the best and worst of the early 1800s: the glorious civilisation of it all, the charm and beauty of 'Constable Country' which he immortalised, the wild cragginess of Hampstead Heath, the gaggles of rosy-cheeked children; but alongside it the snootiness of the highborn towards the low-born, and the constant terror of an early death.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Daily Mail
Gives us an account of the man himself in all his complexity, drawing on his vast correspondence and diaries . . . Hamilton writes beautifully and his style is so engaging that the pace of this mighty work clips along. Highly recommend
The Field
The Constable of James Hamilton's illuminating biography is a radical, an artist possessed of an "experimental burn" to paint the skies and seasons in new lights . . . Hamilton is an assured and insightful guide. He upturns assumptions and encourages you to look with keener eyes
Laura Freeman, The Times
Another tour-de-force of historical imagination. . . it is one of the many delights of Hamilton's book that we enter the encircling group of encouragers who supported him
Lucy Lethbridge, The Oldie
In this illuminating and insightful biography, James Hamilton suggests that we have got Constable all wrong . . . delightful and warm-hearted
The Week
A big, immersive read, as gripping as any fiction
Saga