Maria Bicknell was the daughter of Charles Bicknell, a solicitor to the Prince Regent and the Admiralty. She lived with her parents in London, but would often visit her grandfather in Suffolk. He was Dr. Durand Rudde, the Rector of East Bergholt and also a very wealthy man.
Maria first met the impoverished landscape painter John Constable when she was twelve and he was twenty. They met again when she was a few years older, and love came unbidden into their hearts. But Constable was living on a measly allowance of 100 pounds a year from his father, which was scarcely enough for his own sustenance. They had to carry on their secret affair for seven long years, until the death of his father when he inherited sufficient amount of money to support a wife.
Their marriage was stoutly opposed by both families. Maria’s grandfather threatened to disown her, as Constable belonged to a lower social stratum. His father was not an intellectual but a trader, even though he owned a prosperous mill. Besides, Constable’s paintings did not bring in a regular income.
Though Constable was a landscape painter and an ardent exponent of naturalism, he occasionally undertook portrait painting because of financial necessity. Three months before their marriage, he painted a portrait of Maria. She was in London and Constable wrote from Suffolk, “I would not be without your portrait for all the world. The sight of it calms my spirit in all trouble.”
Their marriage took place in 1816, at the Church of St. Martin Fields in London. Neither family attended the wedding. But their steadfast love carried them through stiff opposition of their families and also through severe financial hardships. Charles Bicknell gave his daughter 50 pounds a year. But when her grandfather died, she received 4000 pounds as part of her inheritance.
Maria bore seven children in quick succession. She also had one miscarriage. Perhaps in those days the subject of contraception was taboo, and the young couple had no clue about Planned Parenthood.
Frequent child bearing took a toll on Maria’s health. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 41, a few months after delivering her seventh child. On November 23rd, 1828, she was buried at St. John-at-Hampstead Churchyard in London.
On her death, Constable went into deep depression. He was unable to concentrate on his paintings. His clients were dissatisfied with his work and grumbled.
“I am intensely distressed and can hardly attend to anything,” he apologized.
To add to his loss, he was saddled with the responsibility of looking after seven children.
He wrote to his brother, “I do feel the loss of my angel. God only knows how my children will be brought up. She was a devoted, industrious, religious mother who was all affection. …….The face of the world has totally changed for me.”
Their married life lasted for a mere twelve years. Frequent child bearing and tuberculosis had debilitated Maria. Death dealt the coup de grace.