“It is the business of a painter”, observed the great 19th century landscape artist John Constable, “to make something out of nothing.” He made this aside in a letter of 1824 to his friend Archdeacon John Fisher from the boisterous seaside resort of Brighton and it now neatly sums up a charming coincidence.

Another artist moved to Brighton 186 years later. A neighbour with an interest in local history told him Constable once lived and worked in his new home. From that one casual connection grew a body of research yielding a wealth of insights now celebrated in the book and its associated exhibition, Constable and Brighton.

When Peter Harrap and his young family moved to Brighton in 2010, he and his wife, Natasha Kissell, set up a studio in a light-filled space that seemed tailor-made for the purpose. I was the neighbour delighted to see their painterly chaos of easels, brushes, sketches and splashes of paint, because I had just identified it as the location of Constable’s lodgings.

As a writer and researcher I had been intrigued by Constable’s links with my hometown, where he once lodged at “Number 9 Mrs Sober’s Gardens”, the address where in 1824 when he wrote his famous denunciation of the resort as ‘Piccadilly…by the sea-side’. His scathing description of the overcrowded resort with its ‘indecent confusion’ of every class of society, a cheerful disregard for modesty, tolerance of eccentric behaviour and appalling traffic problems, is one most Brightonians would recognise today.

Constable scholars had long known the address from the artist’s correspondence, but where was it exactly? He was writing from a place in the throes of an immense building boom. Whole neighbourhoods were springing up almost overnight as brick kilns and scaffolding invaded sheep fields and farmland to the west and the east. Street names were informally adopted for a few years, then overtaken by the march of what the Regency architect Charles Busby proudly described in 1825 as ‘the Magnificent building arrangements now in rapid Progress’. Sober’s Gardens appeared briefly in a few scrappy records and vanished in less than a decade.

During my search for its location the inhabitants of other houses began to come vividly to life through the medium of Constable’s letters. The magnificently unorthodox Mrs Sober herself – what a name for a seaside landlady! – lived in a villa called Western Lodge at the top of the street, which appears in Constable’s painting ‘Gothic House and Western Lodge Brighton’. She was the sister of Thomas Read Kemp, Lord of the Manor of Brighton. Mrs Sober and her brother had once flouted convention by joining an evangelistic sect where, to the amusement of the tolerant Brightonians, she became famous for her fiery sermons. By the time Constable encountered her, she and her brother had both returned to the fold and become more conformist in their religious views, but her reputation as a lady preacher – and the jokes – followed her for the rest of her life.

As Constable cheerfully told Fisher: ‘she (Mrs Sober) is of the good, and has built a Chapple in which she preaches herself. I have heard this story – a man was taken before the magistrates quite drunk – when asked what he was he said he was one of Mrs Sober’s congregation.’

Another colourful neighbour mentioned in the letters was a fellow artist, John James Masquerier – irrepressible, effusively sociable, French and a painter of portraits, who lived next door to the Constable family at 8 Sober’s Gardens and became part of their network of friends. His distinctive name, discovered on the deeds of the house next door to Harrap’s home, helped establish the exact location of number 9 in a street confusingly renumbered after the Constable family visited.

Harrap enthusiastically joined the research from the moment he heard of the connection. Together we found a letter in the Constable family’s private collection addressed to Maria Constable at ‘9 Sober’s Garden, Western Cottages’ – Western Cottages being the name formally adopted for the street in the 1830s. It was the first manuscript link between Sober’s Gardens and an established address and formed part of the key evidence leading to a heritage Blue Plaque being unveiled at the house by Constable’s great-great grandson Richard Constable in 2013.

This in turn led to the appointment of Harrap as curator of the current Constable and Brighton exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and the further research for our book which, for the first time, considers the Brighton location as a subject in itself and allows us to to re-evaluate, expand and clarifiy the artist’s connections with the city, its characters and its countryside.

Constable lived and worked for many weeks in Sober’s Gardens between May and November 1824, a visit that was the first of many during a four-year period when Brighton was genuinely important for him. It was his best hope of a cure for his dying wife, Maria, who found the sea air offered some relief from the tuberculosis which plagued her in polluted London, and it also became a source of artistic inspiration.

Here was peace to complete small commissioned works away from the constant interruptions that plagued his busy London studio. Even more importantly, here was a rare opportunity to step out of the front door with sketchbook and paint box and, within minutes, to be close to nature. Constable seized the opportunity, making scores of small, exquisite sketches of the ‘breakers and the sky’ and the tranquil countryside of the Sussex Downs, dotted with his beloved windmills. These tiny, vibrant pictures, a world away from the formal, highly finished masterpieces so familiar to art lovers, give an extraordinary insight into the radical approach that underpinned his work and so excited young French artists of the period. A young Delacroix, on seeing a small Constable work, described it as ‘incroyable.’

Harrap illuminated the works by organising the chronological order in which they were linked to the Brighton visits, establishing three routes taken as the artist meticulously explored and examined the shoreline and the countryside on successive visits. The death of Maria at the close of 1828 brought an end to four years that had generated an extraordinary total of almost 200 known Brighton drawings and paintings.

Some reattributions are still being investigated. One has arisen from a suggestion by the distinguished art historian and Constable scholar Conal Shields that it could be worth looking very closely at a painting that has intrigued him for years, known as Houses at Hampstead. Shields has long believed that the architecture suggests the location is Brighton, not Hampstead, and the rear of Harrap’s house overlooks a passage of small early nineteenth-century buildings which correlate remarkably closely with the bow fronts, arched doorways and distinctive orange-red brickwork in the painting. It is now possible to speculate that Houses at Hampstead records the view from Constable’s studio window in Brighton, especially as he is known to have painted views from the rear of several of his other homes.

Another unexpected connection may solve the mystery of a puzzling small seaside painting by Constable described as ‘famously enigmatic’ when it was sold at Christie’s in 1988. It is inscribed on the reverse ‘Williamstown Strand’ and the sale catalogue explains: ‘it does not refer to an identifiable stretch of coastline near Brighton which is the most likely coastal scenery…and while with the inscription ending rather abruptly it has been suggested that it may once have read “Williamstown stranded” there is no documentation of a ship of that name being wrecked at the time.’

The answer may arise from the fate of Henry Fauntleroy, the last banker to be hanged for fraud in England. Constable, who knew several of the families ruined by the collapse of Fauntleroy’s bank, followed the case in the papers and wrote to Fisher after the death sentence had been passed, ‘of the wretched Fauntleroy… a greater instance of moral depravity they say never existed. [He is] the only man that I ever felt I could see hanged.’

No researcher could resist a hanged banker. A check in the archives of Constable’s favourite paper, the Morning Post, revealed that Fauntleroy was not only on Constable’s mind but also on his doorstep. He was a very near neighbour in Brighton; his elegant Grecian villa with ‘a billiard room in the form of Napoleon’s travelling tent’ stood 100 yards north of Sober’s Gardens.

Nearby lived Jeremy Botting, the official hangman for Newgate Prison in London, where he eventually executed Fauntleroy on 30 November 1824. It is strange to think of the two men crossing each other’s path in Brighton, as they must certainly have done, and then both meeting in London, one to face the death penalty and the other to carry out the execution.

Constable read the Morning Post regularly, and followed the calamitous fortunes of Fauntleroy, so it is interesting to discover that on 16 October 1824, a date when he was in Brighton, there was, on the same page as a dramatic account of the developments in the trial of Fauntleroy, a report of a shipping disaster off the coast of Dublin. Two ships were ‘stranded at Williamstown’. The description of the stranding matches the painting and, as the sale catalogue noted, the inscription on the painting ends abruptly. Did it originally say ‘Williamstown strandings’? Perhaps the story inspired him to dash off this little painting as an aide-mémoire with a scribbled reference to the incident for future use in a marine painting.

Something out of Nothing? The story is still being written.

Text by Shân Lancaster