Flatford Mill, painted by Constable in 1816-7, Tate
Flatford Mill/Scene on a Navigable River 1816-7 was a rich evocation of his Suffolk boyhood and his father's professional interests, especially the navigation system of the river Stour. John was already 40 when he finished this substantial work (102 x 127cm). It displayed a pair of barges travelling upstream that were about to be disconnected from the towing-horse, so that they could be pushed by pole under Flatford footbridge. The viewer can easily detect Flatford Mill on the river, a facility that lay at the heart of the corn milling business run by Constable's dad. Today Flatford Mill is Grade I listed, as is the 17th century miller's cottage next door.
Flatford Mill today
Dedham Vale was at the centre of a successful wheat-growing region during John Constable’s time, so the more land dedicated to cultivation, the richer the growers and millers would be. As a result, Dedham Vale was a busy working area, lovely enough but not drop dead gorgeous.
John Constable’s painting of The Hay Wain 1821 is very well known, a work that was probably painted from Flatford Mill. The viewer can readily identify a hay wain on the River Stour. The house on the left side of the canvas belonged to the tenant farmer neighbour, Willy Lott, whose family had lived there for several generations. And in the centre we can see a harvest wagon crossing the shallow stream near Flatford Mill.
Willy Lott's Cottage, today
When The Hay Wain was first displayed at the Royal Academy in 1821, it wasn’t warmly received. It was actually better received in France where was exhibited with other works by Constable at the 1824 Paris Salon. In that exhibition, The Hay Wain was awarded a gold medal by King Charles X and praised by the most modern of the French painters, including Eugène Delacroix.
Sold at the Paris exhibition with three other Constables, the painting made its way back to England via a dealer and was sold on several times. It wasn’t until 1886 that The Hay Wain was given to the National Gallery in London, where it remains today. I have been on a tour of enchanting Constable Country and in my humble opinion, the painting is an interesting but not his best piece of art.
Nonetheless it was very important, according to Kevin Andrew. Although the lifestyle Constable depicted had already become out of date by 1821, our impression of this entire part of the English countryside is still informed by Constable. He has created it, and at the same time he was created by it. (Thank you Kevin. I stumbled around trying to express this thought and you put it very elegantly).
Did it matter that Constable tweaked the scenes he painted, making Flatford Mill bigger and the river Stour wider? Not at all, according to Art Finder; Constable was simply ensuring that his landscapes withstood comparison with those by old masters.
The Hay Wain 1821, Nat Gall London, Willy Lott's Cottage appearing on the left
But I must be the only art person in the entire Western World not to have realised that the lovely white house in East Bergholt is the very same 16th-century cottage from Constable’s painting. Renamed Willy Lott's Cottage to fit in with Constable’s label, this is real life copying art.
Willy Lott's cottage has survived largely intact. It was restored but not altered in the 1920s after a revival of interest in John Constable's paintings. It is now Grade I listed and, appropriately, owned by The National Trust. As in the painting, the cottage is located near Flatford Mill which, along with neighbouring Valley Farm and Bridge Cottage, are now used as residential locations for arts-based courses. An art-led recovery!
By this stage I was right in the swing of real life properties and Constable landscapes. So imagine my surprise in finding a real estate ad for Glebe Farm in 2010. The farm house is in Langham near Dedham, on the Suffolk-Essex border.
When his good friend and patron, Bishop Fisher of Salisbury died in 1825, Constable painted an image of St Mary the Virgin Church at Langham, in the Bishop’s honour. This was where Fisher had been rector when Constable met him in 1798. To the right of the painting, the viewer can see the neighbouring farmhouse called The Glebe Farm. The image of Glebe Farm must have been a favourite with Constable since he painted four versions of it between 1826-30.
Constable, The Glebe Farm c1830, 60 x 78cm, Tate Gallery
St Mary the Virgin Church appeared on the right of the painting
Langham farmhouse today with the same church tower that Constable depicted in 1830.