Walking through painters’ brushstrokes

PUBLISHED: 16:35 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013

Early summer in Dedham vale

Early summer in Dedham vale

Dedham is a highlight of the county's first ever Summer of Art this year. Nicky Adams explains what's in store in the inspirational Stour Valley Photos by Nigel Baker and www.visitessex.com

ESSEX countryside is certainly an inspiration. Through the centuries, hundreds of artists - from the much-lauded legends of John Constable and Alfred Munnings to countless weekend dabblers - have found their muses
in the fields, along the coastline or in the towns of Essex.
In fact, the county was the ultimate inspiration for Constable, who famously confessed: 'I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour. Those scenes made me a painter.'

This year the county's scenery and most talented artists are being jointly celebrated throughout a Summer of Art which will

see work displayed along the byways of 13 different art trails, marked out to take art lovers to the places that have moved so many to put
paint to canvas.

There can be no better time to soak up the artistic inspiration of the Essex landscape, be it rural, coastal or urban, and no better place to start than Dedham Vale.

A tranquil meeting place of two counties, its combination of picturesque villages, rolling farmland and ancient woodland all blanketed by a big East Anglian sky makes it rich pickings for an artist's creativity.

Indeed, the romantic landscapes that so captured Constable's imagination have been immortalised in some of the most instantly recognisable watercolours ever painted. The rich hues of Dedham Vale, painted in 1802, Flatford Mill (1816-7) and the Hay Wain (1821) conjure the simplicity of rural life in the Stour Valley at the turn of the 19th century. But take a walk there today and the surprise is that not much has changed. A favourite game of art lovers is to compare Constable's paintings with the scenes that caught his eye and spot his use of artistic licence. However, the atmosphere and innate tranquillity of this rural idyll needed no gilding and Constable simply painted what he saw.

Part of the Summer of Art, The Painter's Trail suggests a gentle 69-mile circuit around picturesque Dedham Vale for cyclists, which is designed to be completed in two or three days. Alternatively, Essex Tourism produces an indispensible guide to Dedham for walking art lovers. Constable Country - Keep it Special suggests a relaxing stroll in Constable's footsteps on waymarked footpaths without stiles along the River Stour between Flatford, Dedham and East Bergholt. You can even follow the young Constable's walk to school across fields.

In Dedham itself, Bridge Cottage, run by the National Trust, is home to a small collection of Constable's paintings as well as a tea room and a shop. Flatford Mill and Willy Lott's Cottage also belong to the National Trust but are leased to the Field Studies Council for art study courses. They can still be admired from the outside though and compared to Constable's famous works.

But Constable is not the only celebrated painter to have honed his brush skills in the Stour Valley. Sir Alfred Munnings was born of old East Anglian farming stock just over a century after Constable. Like Constable, Munnings showed artistic promise at an early age and even before his school days at Redenhall Grammar School and Framlingham College, he produced accurate drawings of Indians, Knights Templar and a sketch of My Mother's Pony, Fanny, at the age of just nine.

At the age of 20, and despite losing the sight in one eye after a blow from a briar while lifting a dog over a hedge, his first painting was accepted by the Royal Academy. Munnings was still an apprentice poster artist in Norwich at the time, but he began to spend more time on his painting and in his long career, 229 other works were accepted by the RA. Munnings became famous for his extraordinarily lifelike paintings of racehorses, but some critics argue that his best work was produced between 1898 and 1914 when he took his inspiration from the East Anglian rural scenes that surrounded him as a young man. The skies and landscapes as well as the animal and human characters he found in the Stour Valley prompted him to put paint to canvas, and as Munnings himself said, 'They were done in my 20s, before I had learned the wiles and tricks which artists are supposed to know'.

On his death in 1959, Munnings left his works to the nation and a collection spanning his entire career is now on display in his former home. The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum at Castle House in Dedham has the largest single collection of Munnings' works, fittingly displayed in the home he was so proud to own and his studio, left much as it was, is also open to the public. So too are his beautiful gardens that, like the tranquil Stour Valley landscape around them, continue to inspire.

Artistic inspirations

Essex Tourism has devised three itineraries for the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Stour Valley area - A Day Walking Through Constable Country, Exploring the Stour Valley on Foot and Days Out Cycling on the Painters' Trail. For details go to www.visitessex.com/discover/rural/ConstableCountry.aspx or request an information guide and a detailed Painters' Trail map by telephoning 0845 600 7373 or sending a cheque for £3.50 made out to Essex County Council to Essex Tourism, County Hall, Chelmsford CM1 1LX.

• The guide Constable Country - Keep it Special can either be downloaded from www.visitessex.com/discover/rural/ConstableCountry.aspx
or obtained by calling at the VisitColchester Information Centre,
1 Queen Street, Colchester CO1 2PG. Call 01206 282920

• A retrospective of the lesser-known portrait paintings of John Constable, Constable Portraits: The Painter and his Circle, runs
June 14 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Staged with
Colchester and Ipswich Museum Services, the collection includes
the newly-identified portraits of Constable's parents.

• The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum, Castle House in Dedham is open
to the public until September 30, 2009 on Wednesdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 2pm to 5pm. Additionally it is open 2pm to 5pm on Thursdays and Saturdays in July and September. Light refreshments are available. For more information, visit www.siralfredmunnings.co.uk or call 01206 322127

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