A bit about Constable Country

Willy Lott's House at Flatford MillABAB’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.

John Constable Boat Building Near Flatford Mill

Boat building near Flatford Mill (1814-15 – currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Boat building near Flatford Mill

Boat building near Flatford Mill today

View on the Stour near Dedham (1822)

View on the Stour near Dedham (1822 – currently in the Huntington Gallery, San Marino, LA, USA).

View on the Stour near Dedham today

View on the Stour near Dedham today

The Hay Wain (1820-21, currently in the National Gallery, London).

The Hay Wain (1820-21, currently in the National Gallery, London).

The Hay Wain today

The Hay Wain today

Scene on a Navigable River

Scene on a Navigable River (1816-17 – currently in the Tate Gallery, London).

Scene on a Navigable River today

Scene on a Navigable River today

Boys Fishing

Boys Fishing – (1812 – currently held by the National Trust at Anglesey Abbey).

Boys Fishing today

Boys Fishing today (boys missing!)

A Boat Passing a Lock

A Boat Passing a Lock (1826 – currently in the Royal Academy, London).

A Boat Passing a Lock today

A Boat Passing a Lock today – sorry, no boat.

Flatford Mill from the Lock

Flatford Mill from the Lock (1811 – currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).

Flatford Mill from the Lock

Flatford Mill from the Lock today – the Mill is under repair in the photo

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.

22 thoughts on “A bit about Constable Country

  1. alexandra s.m.

    How interesting indeed!
    Thank you Mike.
    In my mind the English country side almost always look like a painting 😉

  2. wherefivevalleysmeet

    Interesting comparisons between the paintings and the area as it is today – John Constable used to put a tiny spot of red in most of his paintings – a trick that he picked up from his rival Turner.

  3. John

    It’s hard to imagine now but Constable’s was the “modern art” of its day. His technique, composition and subject-matter were as controversial in its time as the work of the Hirsts, Gormleys and Emins is now. Of course now that everybody’s copied his style (mostly very badly) it all looks “old-hat”.
    His technique, if you look closely is looser than what went before and his trees and water can almost look impressionistic. His compositions are often less balanced than earlier paintings and have a certain movement and vitality; trees, clouds and people all look as though they’re on the move. And his subjects are painted very much as they were in his day, even if to us it looks like a rural idyll.
    And he shares my birthday, so he must be a good egg!

  4. Hilary Melton-Butcher

    Hi Mike – that’s great you’ve shown us then and now images/photos – interesting to see them together and to see, and think about the changes that have occurred in 200+ years …

    I’ve never been to that part of Suffolk … so wonderful to see, thank you – Hilary

  5. Ellen

    On my sister’s first trip to England in the early 70’s she fell in love with Constable paintings. I enjoy spotting them when in Art Museums. There was one I call the dead boy beside the pond. I’m sure he’s just taking a drink but the impression I get when I see it is that things are amiss. Great post and I’m going to send the link to my sister…

  6. Judy@CranberryMorning

    That was certainly interesting, the Then and Now. Constable evidently also saw through romantic, artistic eyes, and probably carried his own bun and coffee with him, in an artsy satchel, to each location. I suppose nowadays the fishing boys are instead in their homes playing computer games. Lovely post, Mike!

  7. williamkendall1

    Good to compare his works to current scenes. Our National Gallery has several of his paintings and sketches, including the Salisbury Cathedral, a church in East Bergholt, and Netley Abbey. I featured the Cathedral at some point from one of my visits.

  8. Karen S.

    He was certainly quite the artist, and enjoyed seeing the past, his own painted version and then the how it is today. A most interesting and peaceful looking village.

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