Every place that I have travelled to has been memorable for different reasons. Some of the places have had a mythological significance attached to them, others have had historical reasons and still others have been memorable for literary reasons. Each of these visits have been memorable as they saw my imagination of the written word I had read or the oral narratives heard about these places come alive. Then there have been places that have made an impact on me visually through photographs, paintings and movies. And again, seeing them come to life when I visited some of the places has been memorable. But none have been as memorable as a visit to Constable Country, the place that inspired one of the greatest painters of English landscapes—John Constable.
John Constable (1776-1837) was born in East Bergholt in the Suffolk region of England. He was brought up in the countryside and his deep love for the local landscape led him to record its beauty, its light, its atmosphere, its colours and its textures in his paintings. Though Constable’s genius is acknowledged throughout the world today, in his own lifetime he struggled for recognition as landscape painting was considered unfashionable. He was more acclaimed in France and sold more paintings there than in England, whose rural landscape he loved so much. Indeed, he had this to say to a friend:
I should paint my own places best, painting is but another word for feeling.
He received recognition in England only about 8 years before his death and the countryside that he made so famous through his paintings came to be known as Constable Country. Every stile, every tree, the fields, the river Stour, the watermills, the cornfields… found an expression in his paintings.
I saw a John Constable painting for the first time on the cover of a book on the life and times of the artist. The painting was a detail from The Hay Wain (see picture on the left), which is considered to be Constable’s masterpiece. What attracted me to painting was the detail and the different textures visible in spite of the scaled down size of the painting in the book. I bought the book, read it from cover to cover, feasted on the paintings and added Constable Country to the list of places I wanted to visit. This was in 1994 and I had to wait for 15 years for that wish to realise.
On a beautiful summer’s day in July 2009, I joined a tour group organised by London Walks to visit Constable Country. Our tour or walk in Constable Country was around Flatford Mill, a watermill that was owned by John Constable’s father and is today a Grade I heritage structure. This Mill and surrounding area formed the subject of many of Constable’s more famous paintings, including The Hay Wain.
When we got off the coach at Dedham Village in Constable Country, our tour guide couldn’t help exclaiming what a perfect day it was for the visit. She couldn’t have put it better for Constable was not only a painter of the different elements of the Suffolk countryside; he was also a painter of clouds. And every single Constable painting is indeed “clouded” (pun intended), which he did after making detailed a study of the skies, cloud movement and wind direction.
And on the day of our visit, Constable Country put on a show for us. And what a show it was—the clouds and the sun played hide and seek creating light and shadow effects much like Constable’s landscapes itself. And all along a cool gentle breeze was a constant companion during our walk in the area. It was also a perfect time for the visit as Constable painted in this area only during the summer months. 🙂
So, dear reader, are you ready for a
painting photo walk around the Flatford Mill area, which will also take you through the settings of some of the paintings painted here by Constable?
Walking around the Flatford Mill area is relaxing and soothing. It is the beautiful example of the typical English countryside one has read about in English classics or seen in paintings like Constable’s. Initially, the passion and love that Constable must have felt to capture his beloved Suffolk on canvas doesn’t sink in immediately. It creeps in gradually after one has got over the shock of seeing such a beautiful, natural landscape. And when I visit the various museums in London, post my visit to Constable Country, to see the original paintings, this passion is substantiated.
Though Constable is described as the greatest painter of the English landscape, it might be more accurate to call him the greatest painter of the Suffolk countryside or the 12 square miles around East Bergholt, his place of birth. No other countryside in England inspired him as much as the area that is known as Constable Country. This is what Constable had to say about Suffolk, his inspiration.
The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork—I shall never cease to paint such places…. I love every stile and stump, and every lane in the village, so deeply rooted are early impressions.
These words of Constable are particularly true when I see his non-Suffolk paintings from Hampstead, Salisbury and Brighton. It is not like they are not good, but they seem to have been painted by someone else altogether !
Every place that I have travelled to has been memorable and I don’t really have any favourites as each destination has been special for a different reason. But no other destination evoked the kind of reaction as a visit to Constable Country did. For this was the first time I had visited a place that had an artistic significance, if you know what I mean. To actually visit a place that was painted almost 200 years ago and find it almost unchanged was like seeing Constable’s paintings come alive in front of me. To see the trees painted in Constable’s landscapes still standing was awe-inspiring. To see the love, care and pride taken by the local government and people to preserve their heritage and Constable’s inspiration had me wishing as to why we Indians cannot do the same with our heritage. The list can go on…
To see so much natural beauty around me made me wish that I could paint the landscape myself or at least write an ode. But I am neither a painter nor a poet so taking photographs and sharing my experiences with you was the next best thing to do, and more so as tomorrow, March 31st is John Constable’s death anniversary.