Exploring Constable Country
PUBLISHED: 12:18 16 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:18 16 September 2014
John Constable is one of the world's most famous artists and here Tracy Jones discovers the Essex landscapes that inspired him and how you can still be inspired by them today
This autumn the Victoria and Albert museum in London takes a fresh look at one of English painting’s true greats — John Constable RA. The V&A’s blockbuster show Constable: The Making of a Master runs from September 20 to January 11 and will re-examine the celebrated artist’s work and explore his sources, techniques, legacy and reveal the hidden stories behind the creation of some of his most famous and enduring paintings.
Of course, it is the beautiful landscape of the Stour valley in north Essex that has become synonymous with Constable and still captivates visitors to this day. A contemporary of William Wordsworth, Constable observed in 1812: ‘Landscape is my mistress — ‘tis to her I look for fame — and all that the warmth of the imagination renders dear to Man’.
Born in East Bergholt in 1776, John Constable was the second son of a wealthy corn merchant who owned both Flatford and Dedham watermills. It was during the time he worked alongside his father, Golding, that John became intimately familiar with the countryside around him and regularly sketched his observations of nature, the scenery and motifs of his environs. Acknowledging the influence of his surroundings, he wrote that they, ‘made me a painter, and I am grateful’, adding ‘the sound of water escaping from mill dams etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things.’
Characterised by broad expanses of rolling countryside, huge, ever-changing skies, picturesque villages, rivers and ancient woodland, Dedham Vale and the Stour Valley has changed little since Constable immortalised such idyllic scenes in the early 19th century and they have continued to inspire writers and artists in the 200 years since.
The charming hamlet of Flatford was the inspiration for some of Constable’s most famous works including The Mill Stream, Boat-Building and The White Horse. Next to Flatford Mill, is Willy Lott’s House, the subject of, arguably, Constable’s best known painting, The Hay Wain.
Following the riverside footpath, past the lock and over the bridge, visitors to the National Trust’s Bridge Cottage can discover more about the artist in a fascinating exhibition about his life and works. The National Trust at Flatford also offers daily tours, with a guide showing copies of Constable’s pictures while standing next to the scene as it is today.
Dedham is the heart of Constable Country. Constable attended the village’s grammar school (now the Old Grammar School and Well House), and he would walk nearly four miles to school each morning alongside the River Stour from his home in East Bergholt.
Many of Constable’s paintings feature Dedham and its landmarks, including the parish church which, with its massive Caen stone and flint tower, is a focal point of the surrounding Dedham Vale. The village of Dedham is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 and today is home to a thriving community with some delightful shops and hostelries to tempt every budget and appetite.
St Mary the Virgin Church is home to an original Constable, The Ascension, one of only three religious paintings by the artist, all of which were commissioned for churches in his native area. It was requested in 1821, the year he completed The Hay Wain. The other two earlier works were painted for parish churches in nearby Brantham and Nayland.
The Dedham Art & Craft Centre rewards visitors not only with goods for sale, but also its magnificent location and structure as an historic converted church. Charlie6, a lifestyle living showroom, shares the ground floor with a delightful tearoom. Two further floors are dedicated to more than 30 artisans and specialist retailers creating a paradise for the casual browser and enthusiastic shopper alike.
Having worked up a thirst and hunger from all that exploring, The Sun Inn is just a few steps away and is an ideal spot in which to revive yourself with a pint of Brewer’s Gold, a meal sourced from fine East Anglian produce or a good night’s sleep. You can also eat in a Constable painting. The award-winning Le Talbooth restaurant is featured in The Vale of Dedham by the artist and is just two minutes away from Maison Talbooth, its sister family-run, luxury country house hotel. Dedham also boasts the charming Essex Rose Tea Room and 16th century, timber-framed Marlborough Head Inn.
Constable wasn’t the only Royal Academician to live and work in and around Dedham. As a boy in 1898, the future President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Alfred Munnings, visited Flatford with his father and reflecting in later life wrote: ‘We found it beautiful, unspoilt, as in the days of Constable. The mill was working — no curiosity for sightseers then. There were the locks, the barges, the towpaths and the horses. No bottles or food-papers littering the meadows. No sound of car or char-a-banc. Only the sound of the mill, ducks in the stream and a breeze in the trees.’
Later in life, Munnings followed in Constable’s footsteps and bought his dream home, Castle House, in Dedham, where he lived and worked for more than 40 years. His desire to make his paintings accessible after his death in 1959 resulted in Lady Munnings opening their elegant Tudor and Georgian home to the public in 1961. Today, The Munnings Collection of more than 650 paintings entices visitors from all over the world with changing displays of his work, plus an amazing archive of letters, photography and other artifacts. n
The best way to enjoy and fully experience the charm and exceptional beauty of Constable Country is, of course, to venture out on foot, by bicycle or even a canoe. You can download itineraries, maps, circular and linear walks and cycle routes plus other essential information to help you discover Constable Country at www.visitessex.com/constablecountry