When paintings came to life… A visit to Constable Country

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.

The Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable

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.

This is the setting for part of Constable's most famous painting, "The Hay-Wain" (1821). Click on the photograph to see the original painting.

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?

The Stour River at Flatford Mill (not in picture). This river was central to the theme of Constable's most famous landscapes. The cottages probably served as a residence for the family or perhaps the mill hands. Today, these cottages serve as a museum space, a shop and a tea room.
Setting for the painting on "View on the Stour near Dedham" (1822). The interplay of trees, grass and the water was ethereal... It was easy to understand why Constable was inspired by this place. Click on the picture to view the original painting
Setting for 'A Boat Passing a Lock' (1826). The original locks were made of wood, but have now been replaced with concrete. Click on the photograph to see the original painting.
Setting for 'Flatford Mill from the Lock' (1811). Click on the picture to view the original painting.
"Boat-building near Flatford Mill" (1814-15). This setting was discovered in 1985 when excavations to lay the foundations for a tea room to be built here were carried out. The tea room has since then been shifted to the right (partially visible). Click on the picture to view the original painting.

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.

39 thoughts on “When paintings came to life… A visit to Constable Country

  1. What a ‘photo walk’ that was! I can hang all those images on my wall alongside Constable’s paintings. You are quite a photographer! I loved the way you described the feeling that you had when you stood in the middle of the very country that your imagination had painted in your mind long ago, when you’d read about it or seen the paintings. How awesome those moments must have been!

    ps.
    Respected Madam,
    Should you by any chance feel inclined to use the services of a porter, do consider my application for the same.
    Yours truly.

    Like

    1. Respected Umashankarji,

      Thank you very much for your comments. I don’t think I am that much of a photographer as the place and camera being absolutely perfect. But having said that, I must also tell you that I almost forgot to take photographs as I was waiting for inspiration to pick up at least a pencil and start sketching. So when that did not happen, the camera came out and even that could not capture the details and the textures there. The English countryside is my favourite travel destination outside India and no amount of pictures or movies or books can capture the atmosphere of that please.

      I am usually a solitary traveller, and I travel light. So I would not be requiring the services of a porter; instead the the company of like-minded people is most welcome. And that too those people who do not call me madam. 😀

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  2. A visit to John Constable country has for long been on my must- do-during-my time-on- earth list. If I am not able to make it, I will have the satisfaction of having made this virtual tour. Fine post and even better photographs, I have not read a better description of this place. The last word- there is so much “real” beauty around us that I am often puzzled why artists prefer the abstract route.

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    1. Well, the part of abstract art puzzles me to, But then each to his or her own. Besides, if everyone only painted the “real” beauty around, we would not really be able to appreciate it the way we do it today or comapre it favourable against other types of art. 🙂

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  3. Thank you Sudha. This was indeed a surreal walk, ethereal too. 🙂 I can very well understand how keenly he must have painted, such beauty there is in the countryside. I too wish sometimes that I could paint like that…but the pictures that you have captured (both in print and in words) are surely the next best thing.

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    1. I’m so glad you liked it, Deboshree. As I have mentioned in an earlier comment the English countryside is one of the most beautiful places in the world and if you get a chance to visit that place grab it with both hands. And who knows what pictures in your mind will come to life 🙂

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  4. Gorgeous……….and so darn summery……makes me want to visit now. Beautiful post……..what a wonderful walk through!

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  5. I don’t know much about painters and paintings beyond some famous names like Van Gogh and Picasso. But I KNOW Constable and have loved his paintings very much whenever I have come across any by him in a museum or art exhibition. The photos were so true to the paintings, which is a compliment btw. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Zephyr for your compliment and the comments. The next time you are in London do sign up for a day’s tour with London Walks. The morning is devoted to Constable Country and the afternoon to Salisbury, another of Constable’s subjects. It is a lovely tour/walk and the guide is Hilary, my favourite London walk guide.

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    1. Thanks, Abhinav. The original paintings are huge 6 footers and they make quite an impact on the viewer when you see them in the museum gallery. As for seeing the real thing, nothing to beat that experience either 🙂

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  6. I have not had much aptitude to appreciate visual arts (as opposed to directly experiencing visual beauty) but your post makes me regret that my lack of exposure to paintings. Lovely photographs and even better write-up.

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    1. It is never too late to learn to appreciate anything. I knew nothing about paintings and a chance purchase on a Impressionist paintings when I started working, opened up a whole knew world. And I am still learning with exposure to different types and schools and styles of painting.

      And thank you very much for your kind comments. 🙂

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  7. i can read this post a few times. loved clicking those photographs to see the actual painting (it was like a fun game :D). and these photographs are like wallpapers, amazing. only one confusion. is the third image a photograph or a painting? awesome post, superhit 😀

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    1. Thank you very much, Debjyoti. I am very glad you liked it and were able to compare the photo and the original painting..

      Now that you mention it, the third photograph does look like a painting. See, such is the magic of Constable Country where photos become paintings and vice-versa. 🙂

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  8. I have read about boat locks. They are complicated pieces of machinery and I wanted to see one. Your post made it possible. I prefer the wooden one painted by Constable, of course but the concrete one isn’t bad, either. I have read a lot about Constable, too but reading your homage to him was refreshing. The simple man, he was, I am sure he would have loved your tribute too 🙂

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    1. Then you must, must visit England. Locks are still in use in many crossings even today. In fact I have filmed passing through a lock while going to Hampton Palace from Richmond along the Thames. I will send it to you by mail.

      But then again, you must visit England. Period. 🙂

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  9. A beautiful post which brings to life the country side of England, through the lovely paintings! I totally agree with you that the pristine scenic beauty of Europe especially of the countryside is unsurpassed, as I too found the pictures springing to life even after passage of time!

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  10. Sudhagee – I have read a lot of travel blogs but I have to confess this is the best one by far. I felt like you were really taking me around and telling me about John Constable (who I didn’t know about until now) .. thank you so much for this wonderful post and the stunning pictures .. I am going to definitely to visit the place next time I am in UK ..

    P.S.- can i send you my application too ??

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    1. Sangeeta, thank you. And then again, thank you. If a reader feels that she or he has walked that trip with me then that is the highest praise that a I can get. Thank you.

      Next to India, England is my favourite destination and I do tend to write a lot about my stay and travels there. Given a chance, I’d like that to be my next destination and I’d love to have a travel companion who loves the place as much as I do. 🙂

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  11. Agree with Sangeeta! 🙂 Even I felt strolled around into the mystifying magic of the country! 🙂

    Truly amazing..I like your pictures too! 🙂 They look so scenic and serene! 🙂

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    1. Delighted to see you here, Jen and a warm welcome here.

      And thank you so much for your lovely comments, which (as I told Sangeeta) is the highest praise possible for a writer.

      Thank you and I’m glad that you enjoyed the trip 🙂

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