John Constable Country

John Constable Country

The Stour valley is ‘Constable Country’. His wonderful pictures of this place, especially this ‘Hay Wain‘ painting, have become ‘part of the landscape of every English mind’.

Willy Lot's cottage beside river

The Hay Wain

Today, graceful willows line the river Stour. How could an artist resist painting a scene like this. In Constable’s day these fields would have been filled with people working. Haymakers in the fields, horse-drawn hay wains in the lanes, boat builders, the mill waterwheels turning, a loaded barge passing downstream pulled by horses. Constable captures everything.

Even now this very familiar painting comes alive each time we stand up close and look at the details: the boat half hidden in the reeds, the sunlight reflecting in the water and back-lighting the trees, the distant wain loaded with hay and the workers in the field. The glaze of the rich colours and the sunlit highlights always make this painting sing with the vibrant joy of an English summer’s day. No wonder we all love it.

Willy Lot's cottage in winter

John Constable

The Constable family farmed these fields and milled the wheat beside the gentle flowing Stour at Flatford Mill which was owned by Constable’s father. For all lovers of the English landscape this is a sacred spot.

Photo of Flatford Mill

The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts….I love such things- Shakespeare could make anything poetical…As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight“.

John Constable
Portrait of John Constable

I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful; that is, I had often thought of pictures of them before ever I touched a pencil.”

Trees with Dedham Church tower in the distance.

John Constable spent much of his time painting his beloved Dedham Vale. He repeatedly added his ‘trade mark/signature’ in the shape of the tower of Dedham Church in the background:

” I love every stile and stump and lane in the village, as long as I hold a brush I shall never cease to paint them.”

Constable wrote that his art was

“to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, and that ‘the landscape painter must walk in the fields with a humble mind – no arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty”. 

Whatever may be thought of my art, it is my own; and I would rather possess a freehold, though but a cottage, than live in a palace belonging to another.’

Though he managed to scrape an income from painting, it was not until 1819 that Constable sold his first important canvas, The White Horse, sold for 100 guineas. But he was never well off. Today art dealers make millions buying and selling these masterpieces!

The White Horse marked an important turning point in Constable’s career; its success saw him elected an associate of the Royal Academy. It inspired him to continue with what he called my large ‘Six Footers’.

countryside in the evening light
Autumnal Sunset, 1812 One of his earliest sketches

The sky is the source of light in nature – and governs everything.”

Constable’s Oil sketches

Some of his greatest work is found in his sketches. These are full of immediacy, capturing the mood, feeling and vibrancy of a passing moment. The glitter and sparkle of nature after a storm, the gentle light of dusk on a summer’s day, a close up study of tree bark, wildflowers and his sky studies. His work caused a stir when first shown in Paris, and no doubt sowed seeds that sparked off the French Impressionist movement in later years.

England, with her climate of more than vernal freshness, and in whose summer skies, and rich autumnal clouds, the observer of Nature may daily watch her endless varieties of effect.. one brief moment caught from fleeting time.”

‘Arundel Mill and Castle is John Constable’s last painting (1837).

This scene must have reminded him of his youth growing up in Dedham Vale. The mill, just a few miles from our home here in West Sussex, has long gone. All that remains is the mill stream.

‘Constable Country’ still attracts creative writers, poets and painters. Visitors flock here to see the scenes where these great landscapes were produced and dip their toes in a more graceful past.

For More– I have a treasured book of some of Constable’s sketches reproduced from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London. You can also listen to this 10 minute talk from the National Gallery in London, where the original Hay Wain painting is on display.

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