TitleW. G. Constable Archive
Admin/Biog HistoryConstable, William George (1887-1976), art historian and gallery director, was born at 17 Gerard Street, Derby, on 27 October 1887, the elder child and only son of William George Samuel Constable and his wife, Remeliah Isabella Webb. The celebrated painter John Constable belonged to the same family although the relationship, never precisely established, was not very close.

Constable attended Derby School, of which his father was headmaster, before going up to St John's College, Cambridge. From Cambridge he went to London and, joining the Inner Temple, read for the bar, to which he was called in 1914. But the direction of his career was entirely changed after a horrific experience in 1916: while serving as an officer in the Sherwood Foresters, he was buried alive by the explosion of a shell near him in the trenches. his batman dug him out, but he was subsequently invalided out of the army.

It was during his long convalescence that Constable decided to give up law and to look to the arts for a living. He enrolled as a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. During his Slade years, he met a wide range of artists, including J. S. Sargent, Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, Degas, and Roger Fry. He became a competent but never a very interesting painter, as he himself recognized, so in 1922 he began to work as a tour guide at the Wallace Collection, and soon afterwards started to write art criticism for the New Statesman and the Saturday Review. The keeper, D. S. MacColl, took a kindly interest in him, associating him with the work he himself was doing on artworks in the collection and suggesting Canaletto and his works as subjects for research.

Late in 1923 Constable moved to the National Gallery, where he was to remain for eight years, the last two as assistant director. Through visits on behalf of the estates duty office, he built up an impressive knowledge of British private collections, which he supplemented with a systematic examination of provincial art galleries and museums. Soon after the First World War he had established a friendship with Bernard Berenson; he now built up contacts with continental art historians and curators. He would probably have succeeded Augustus Daniel as director of the gallery, but in 1931 he was persuaded to become the first director of the newly formed Courtauld Institute of Art in the University of London, which opened in the following year. Here he embarked on an ambitious academic programme. At this date, no British university offered a degree course in art history, and Constable decided to introduce a comprehensive and wide-ranging course to remedy this omission. The British ignorance of art appalled him, and, with W. E. Williams, he was involved in the 'Art for the People' project, which aimed to send exhibitions to previously unused venues. He recruited an impressive body of lecturers for the institute, including Roger Fry, Kenneth Clark, and E. K. Waterhouse, and travelled widely to act as an ambassador for the Courtauld. In 1933 the Warburg Institute became attached to the Courtauld - bringing in such experts as Rudolf Wittkower - and in 1934 a scientific department and laboratory was set up. By that date Constable was experiencing difficulties with the governing body, whom he believed to be more concerned with the maintenance of numbers than of the highest academic standards. Constable was not prepared to compromise, and in early 1937, to the consternation of his friends and many of the students, he resigned.

From 1935 to 1937 Constable was Slade professor of fine arts at Cambridge in succession to Fry; he was then offered the curatorship of painting at the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston. Thus in March 1938 the Constables set sail for 'the other Cambridge', in Massachusetts. Although he never renounced his British citizenship, it was to remain their home for the rest of his life. On 29 May 1926 he had married Olivia (b.1901/2), daughter of Arthur Carson Roberts, of Chelsea, legal adviser to the Ministry of Health; they had two sons, John and Giles.

Constable held the curatorship of paintings at Boston until October 1957: almost twenty years. Constable was an excellent administrator, but his work as an art historian proved more memorable. He wrote two major books: 'Richard Wilson', which appeared in 1953, and 'Canaletto', published in two volumes in 1962, both of which remain standard texts on the artists. Constable's other books include 'The Painter's Workshop' (1954), 'John Flaxman' (1927), 'Art History and Connoisseurship' (1938), and 'Art Collecting in the United States' (1964). He also compiled or edited, with punctilious accuracy, a long series of exhibition and other catalogues.

In his personal relations 'W. G.', as he was universally known, even to his wife, was unfailingly kind, generous, and approachable. Yet at heart he was a shy and private man, not easy to know, for all his outward geniality and friendliness. He received many honours. They included fellowships of the Society of Antiquaries and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an honorary fellowship of St John's College, Cambridge (1956), and honorary degrees of three universities; he was also made a chevalier of the Legion d'honneur, and commendatore of the Crown of Italy. He died at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 3 February 1976.

Please note - this description is taken from: Alec Clifton-Taylor, 'Constable, William George (1887-1976)', rev. Rosemary Mitchell, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
[, accessed 21 Sept 2011]
DescriptionThe majority of the archive comprises material relating to Constable's monograph on Richard Wilson (1953). It also contains a small volume of material concerning his work on both John Constable (unpublished) and John Flaxman (1927), as well as a number of general research files concerning other seventeenth and eighteenth century artists.
The archive comprises primarily research notes, correspondence and photographs - many of which are annotated. It also includes copies of published material and original source material (including the Thomas Hollis diary, the Wicklow Papers and the Benjamin Booth Papers) and a card index containing information about works in private collections.
Date[c 1920s-1970s]
Extent17 boxes


Image CaptionWilliam George Constable by Elizabeth Polunin (detail), c.1936. National Portrait Gallery, London.
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