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John Constable and Wivenhoe House, Essex

PUBLISHED: 09:00 17 February 2016

Wivenhoe House through cork trees

Wivenhoe House through cork trees

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John Constable is one of the world’s most famous landscape artists and his love of the Essex countryside has made some of our local scenes recognisable across the globe. As we prepare to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Heather Leathley explains how, 200 years ago, Constable focussed on Wivenhoe Park in his search for true happiness of the heart

When landscape artist John Constable arrived to paint Wivenhoe Park 200 years ago, his artistic plan came with an ulterior motive – to win himself a bride.

In 1816, keen to prove to his prospective father-in-law that he would be able to support his fiancée Maria Bicknell, he accepted a commission from family friend Major-General Francis Rebow to stay at Wivenhoe House and paint a landscape of his beautiful parkland estate.

He was paid 100 guineas for the task, arriving in late summer to create this early masterpiece, now worth many millions of pounds and owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The setting may have changed somewhat, with Wivenhoe House, seen at the top of the painting, now a four-star country house hotel, and, at the other end of the lake, students on the University of Essex campus can enjoy the view from Constable’s standpoint, but it is still possible for visitors to walk in the artist’s footsteps and reflect on the interpretations he made to create this harmonious painting of a country estate.

Jess Kenny, arts and gallery director at the University of Essex, explains: ‘With great skill, Constable brings together the Rebows’ intimate knowledge of life on their estate and his love of landscape to create a harmonious interpretation of the parkland. One of the unique aspects of Wivenhoe Park is that Constable painted it on his easel in situ rather than developing it back at the studio, as with his later works.’

Wivenhoe Park, Essex by John Constable, Wiedener Collection. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, WashingtonWivenhoe Park, Essex by John Constable, Wiedener Collection. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Constable kept in touch with Maria through a series of letters during his stay, correspondence which has given insight into his creative process. On August 21, 1816, he wrote: ‘I am to paint two small landscapes for The General, one in the park of the house and a beautiful wood and piece of water, and another a wood, with a little fishing house, where the young lady (who is the heroine of all these scenes) goes occasionally to angle.’

Nine days later he updated her on his progress: ‘My dearest love…I am going on very well with my pictures for them. The park is the most forward. The great difficulty has been to get so much in it as they wanted. On my left is a grotto, with some elms, at the head of the piece of water; in the centre is the house over a beautiful wood and very far to the right is a deer house, which it was necessary to add; so that my view was comprehended too large a space. But today I have got over the difficulty and begin to like it myself.’

His work completed, Constable left Wivenhoe Park in the middle of September 1816 and married Maria on October 2. They enjoyed a happy marriage, having seven children, though sadly Maria died in October 1828, aged just 41, after succumbing to tuberculosis. Constable wore black for the rest of his life.

Now, in 2016, there are plans to celebrate the momentous anniversary of this painting, with Wivenhoe House inviting art lovers everywhere, young and old, amateur and professional, to set up their easels in the grounds on Sunday, June 12 to create their own landscape masterpieces for an exhibition in the hotel.

Oliver Brown, general manager at the hotel, adds: ‘Wivenhoe House has an amazing history. It has been visited by royalty, by prime ministers and it was even a base for the SAS, but everything starts with this painting.

Wivenhoe House was a base for the SASWivenhoe House was a base for the SAS

‘What we want to do is take the painting as the starting point and then ask people to create their own depiction of Wivenhoe House, using whatever medium they prefer. And to make it more fun, we are setting up our own Constable Challenge, inviting people to set up around the outside of the hotel on Sunday, June 12 and get to work, creating their work on the spot as Constable did.

‘Following in the footsteps of the Rebow family, as it’s custodians, we would also like to commit this period in the house’s history to canvas,’ continues Oliver. ‘We are inviting professional artists to submit their proposals for a landscape painting. The chosen artist will receive £2,000 and will bring their proposal to life over the summer ready for our autumn showing.’

A selection of the created artwork will be exhibited at the hotel in autumn this year, when the professional painting commissioned by the hotel to commemorate the anniversary, will be unveiled. Respected professional artist David Trenow, who lives in nearby Wivenhoe, will be one of the judges. He says: ‘Sometimes it takes an artist to show you how beautiful the world around you really is and Constable certainly does that. It can be said that landscape painting owes a colossal debt to Constable, more so because of his influence on movements like the French impressionists and their subsequent impact on the world of art.’

As part of the celebrations, community groups are invited to play their part in re-creating Constable’s original painting by helping to complete a giant canvas, made up of 12 sections, which will all be joined together and exhibited at Wivenhoe House.

And young artists should make a special note of an upcoming date for their diary too. The University of Essex is inviting submissions for its annual Children and Young Persons Exhibition to run in the University’s Art Exchange Gallery and, of course, this year the theme is landscapes. Wivenhoe House is sponsoring a People’s Prize inviting all exhibition visitors to nominate their favourite.

Wivenhoe House HotelWivenhoe House Hotel

The university’s arts outreach officer, Kate Beckwith, adds: ‘Every year the standard of entries for our exhibition is breathtaking. We hope young artists’ imagination will be fired by this theme and we look forward to a bumper entry.’

Celebrating Constable in 2016

Friday, February 26

Deadline for professional landscape artists to submit their proposals for a 21st century version of Wivenhoe Park.

Sunday, February 28

Wivenhoe House, in partnership with the University of Essex, is hosting a Family Art Day. All the artwork on the day will be put forward for the exhibition. Places must be pre-booked.

Friday, March 4

Closing date for entries for the children’s and young people’s exhibition.

Sunday, June 12

The Constable Challenge will be held at Wivenhoe House.

Sunday, September 18

Unveiling of the professional commission and the exhibition of chosen works from the Constable Challenge opens at the hotel.

Please visit www.wivenhoehouse.co.uk for more details of every event and to book places. If you are involved in a group which would like to paint a section of the large Constable canvas, please visit the website for more details.

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