“Landscape is my mistress…” John Constable 1812 and looking at the beautiful landscape of the area now known as Constable Country it is easy to see what inspired the artist to paint some of England’s most popular pictures.
John Constable was born in 1776 in East Bergholt to a prosperous corn merchant who owned Flatford and Dedham water mills, as well as a windmill in East Bergholt. After school in Lavenham and Dedham, Constable began training as a miller but used his spare time to paint and draw. He persuaded his parents that he wanted to become a painter and in 1799 enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in London. He spent his holidays in Suffolk practising his art on the familiar landscape around East Bergholt.
Constable rejected contemporary notions of ‘landscape painting’ which until then had followed certain conventions on how foliage should be painted and how compositions should be organised. He took his inspiration from nature as he saw it in front of him which makes it easier for us to enjoy today the same views that Constable painted.
At Flatford Mill where he painted many scenes of barges, boat building and the dock gates, the National Trust have restored the dry dock and made new gates for the lock based on Constable’s original drawings. Sections of the damaged dock floor were repaired with new brocks manufactured at the original Sudbury brick works. The dock is flooded periodically to keep down the weeds.
Probably Constable’s most famous painting is the Hay-Wain produced in 1820-21. Today you can still see clearly where Constable was positioned when he sketched the hay cart (or wain) returning to the fields across the river via the ‘flat’ ford for some more hay.
After Constables death in 1837 the family sold Flatford Mill to John Lott and milling continued until the turn of the 20th Century. Sir Alfred Munnings, another local lad from Dedham, visited Flatford with his Father in 1898 and found a working mill ‘ beautiful, unspoilt as in the days of Constable.’ Flatford was even a stop on a Thomas Cook & Son itinerary in 1893 and the Great Eastern Railway arranged tours with coaches meeting the London trains to Colchester.
Dedham is a very pretty town within walking distance of Flatford and is well worth a visit at any time of the year. In addition to the Munnings Museum, there’s also an art & craft gallery and several antique shops to visit. The Church sits in the middle of the town, off the High Street, and the churchyard backs onto the well used village cricket pitch! There are many stuning walks throughout DEdham Vale and the town of Dedham is a good starting and stopping off point for many of them. The walk to Flatford Mill from Dedham should take ca 45mins following the meandering River Stour.
However Flatford Mill and Willy Lott’s House fell into disrepair until Thomas Parkington of Ipswich bought the estate and presented it to the nation on his death as a tribute to Constable. The National Trust acquired it in 1943 and it has been leased to the Field Studies Council for courses since 1946. The National Trust run Bridge Cottage at Flatford (pictured above) as well as a large coffee shop so you can be assured of some sustenance when you visit!
RSPB Flatford Wildlife Gardens opened in June 2011 and is the first RSPB dedicated wildlife garden in the UK. The gardens belonged to two sisters, Sylvia and Margaret Richardson who ran a tea garden on the site for decades. Being great nature lovers, they bequeathed the land to the RSPB to care for and there is now an innovative and beautiful garden, with sweeping flower borders, rich with nectar and pollen for our beleaguered bees and butterflies. A meadow full of wildflowers to support a myriad insects to feed our declining sparrows and song thrushes.
The garden is open daily between April and the end of September. Entrance is free, dogs are welcome but must be on leads, and during the school holidays there will be a range of activities, including pond dipping, mini-beast hunting, moth mornings and nature trails, amongst others. Please see RSPB Flatford Wildlife Gardens to check what activities are on at the moment.
Like Turner, Constable was noted for his paintings of the sky using his knowledge of cloud formations and patterns from the time he spent growing up alongside a windmill to good effect. Suffolk is still famous for its ‘big skies’ given the lack of tall buildings and low population/light density, so you should be able to enjoy similar views of the clouds when you visit Constable Country.
Gainsborough and Constable
Two of Britain’s greatest painters, John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough, were born within 10 miles of each other in some of the most fertile and rich farming land in England. They were both deeply inspired by their native Suffolk, and a large part of South Suffolk/North Essex around Flatford Mill has adopted Constables name – ‘Constable Country’ – as much of the area is reflected in his work. Gainsborough also left a strong legacy, and there’s museum dedicated to him in Sudbury, where he was born, as well as this impressive statue in the market square.
John Constable was born in 1776 at East Bergholt, the son of a prosperous mill owner in Dedham Vale. John’s chosen profession of painting was frowned upon by his family so he tried to combine his love of painting with working in the family business. However his spare time was spent painting his surroundings in Flatford, Dedham and East Bergholt, and he was eventually allowed by his father to attend the Royal Academy in 1799. He was well aware of Gainsborough’s work and they were among the formative influences in his work ‘I fancy I see Gainsborough under every hedge and hollow tree’ he wrote in 1799 from Ipswich.
Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 in the market town of Sudbury. In order to maintain himself he took portrait commissions and copy paintings as well as religious works, but landscapes were his real love. At the time landscapes were not fashionable and there was no real demand for them. Gainsborough managed to create new a demand through founding the realist tradition of landscape painting in the UK, in contrast to the imaginary landscape scenes of 18th C painters. Gainsborough moved to London in 1774 and gradually his realistic images of country scenes, pretty cottages, animals, churches and open skies gained wide acceptance. Partly this was as a result of a nostalgia for the way the countryside had been, as mechanisation was beginning to replace more traditional form of farming, and the Industrial Revolution was drawing more and more people away from the fields.
Over the course of his career Gainsborough painted over 500 portraits of the English aristocracy, but he considered himself a landscape painter despite only producing some 200 landscape canvasses.
Constable rejected the easy option of a position in his family business and chose instead to concentrate on his painting. However he did not become self sufficient in this as he was also reluctant to take on portrait and house commissions, preferring instead to concentrate on landscapes. His early landscape work was a faithful reflection of the country scenes around him, as a celebration of the rural landscape. When he was forty his father died and left him a private income, which enabled him to concentrate on his artistic development. He remained true to reflecting harmonious and pleasant aspects of the landscape, rather than the dramatic and stormy work of his contemporary, Turner. Constable wanted to make a deep and patient study of nature, and concentrated on this depth rather than painting new scenes. The poetry of Wordsworth was soon to reflect a similar respect for and study of nature.
At the age of 53 Constable was elected to the Royal Academy, which was unusual for a landscape artist. His work was sought after and he became one of the greatest influences on the art of his time. But he never wanted to leave England and, unlike Turner who drew his inspiration from Italy, was content to study the landscape of the Stour Valley. And when you come and visit Constable Country you’ll see why!