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ABAB’s regular reader (thank you – the cheque’s in the post) will know that my knowledge of art could be sketched on the back of very small postage stamp. Nevertheless, in the endless pursuit of intriguing stories and occasionally stimulating bits of Britain, which may attract and amuse, the intrepid Bit About Britain team set out for Flatford Mill. Flatford, as you art-buffs know, is on the River Stour in Suffolk, close to the border with Essex, and the area inspired many of the paintings of John Constable (1776-1837). This is Constable Country.
John was born in the village of East Bergholt, the second son and fourth child of a relatively wealthy corn merchant, Golding Constable, and his wife Ann, Golding Constable owned Flatford and Dedham mills and John could have had a future in the family business. But his heart was in art. As a youth, he would paint and draw with his good friend, John Dunthorne, the local plumber and glazier, who was himself a talented artist. Eventually, in 1799, Constable persuaded his parents to let him attend the Royal Academy and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
The area around Flatford and Dedham Vale is featured in many of Constable’s most famous works. He himself said that he “should paint his own places best.” We thought it would be Good Plan, if somewhat obvious, to visit Flatford and try to take photographs of some of the scenes as they are 200 years after Constable painted them. Indeed, the idea was so novel that we weren’t entirely surprised to discover that the National Trust, which owns Flatford Mill now, and several other buildings nearby, has produced a booklet along similar lines. However, it takes more than a lack of originality and a multi-million pound organisation to deter us, so here we go…
Images of the originals, all of which are apparently in the public domain and are shown courtesy of Wikipedia, have been included for comparison.
As you can see, the area Constable painted was much more industrial than it is now – and considerably less overgrown. There are several walks thereabouts in Constable Country, but we didn’t want to spoil you by showing too much pleasant scenery, so reluctantly resisted the urge to tramp any further for the Greater Good. Flatford Mill, Willy Lott’s House (the building featured in the Hay Wain), Bridge Cottage (seen in ‘A lock on the Stour’) and nearby Valley Farm are now all carefully looked after by the National Trust. Apart from Bridge Cottage, none of these buildings is normally open to the public – but they will be featured on a future post. There is plenty of parking nearby (National Trust) and also a small exhibition about Constable and his life. It was when taking the photograph of ‘Scene on a Navigable River’ that I realised the coffee and bun I had enjoyed earlier had been consumed in the modern building you can see in that shot. Hey-ho – that’s progress.