John Constable -A Suffolk Artist

Last month I went to see the ‘Creating Constable’ exhibition at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.

Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, John Constable (1776-1837) is known as one of the most important of all British artists with many of his famous works featuring the gentle countryside of his bucolic home county, Suffolk. Constable’s landscape paintings not only showed a new way to paint, but through sharing his visual interpretation he also encouraged his audiences to view the landscape in a different way.

I think this idea of a historical and different way of perceiving reality, as well as a historical way of viewing any re-presentation of that reality by an artist of the corresponding period, is more difficult for us to imagine than we realise. We are, after all, living in a time after the Impressionists, after the Post-Impressionists and after the Modernists, indeed, we now appear to exist in a time considered so postmodern much of our realities are viewed with deep skepticism. Please just hold this in mind as you look at the next two paintings and as you read the context for their creation.

‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’. July 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33 x W 50.8 cm

On show in this exhibition is a very special pair of paintings. In the summer of 1815 with the health of Constables’ elderly father, Golding, failing and his wife, Ann, John’s mother, having died earlier that spring, John came to visit with his father in East Bergholt. During the course of his stay he spent many hours in the fields sketching and painting. Two paintings produced at this time were ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ (above) and ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ (below).

Constable never exhibited or attempted to sell these two paintings during his lifetime. Although highly finished, these were private works, records of the landscape that was precious to him at a difficult time. I think this is a fine example of the difference between the sensibilities of the early 19th century and our ‘show all, tell all’, skeptical 21st-century existence.

‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’. August 1815. Oil on canvas. H 33.1 x W 50.7 cm

Returning now to the exhibition more generally it is possible to detect that Constable believed in the necessity of being skilful at drawing. A capability in the world of art that has not always been fashionable. At the beginning of his career Constable often copied from Old master prints, to develop his technique. He continued this practice into later life, collecting prints by Dutch and Flemish artists such as this copy of Jacob Ruysdael’s ‘The Wheatfield’ (below).

‘The Wheatfield’ by Constable (top) after Jacob Ruysdael. 1818. Pen and sepia ink on paper.

Of course, the exhibition also displays some of Constable’s original drawn creations such as this pen, ink and watercolour study of East Bergholt church.

‘St Mary’s, East Bergholt Church: the exterior from the South West’. c. 1796. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. H 25.8 cm x W 39.7 cm

On the picture it is just possible to make out a faint set of pencil grid lines drawn in preparation for the transfer and enlarging of the church into the finished oil painting.

‘East Bergholt Church’. c. 1796-97. Oil on board.

Naturally, there can’t be a Constable exhibition without at least one painting that includes some aspect of Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I had just taken the above photo and was about to leave the gallery when the Gallery Steward approached me and asked if I’d spotted the kingfisher flying over the water in the Mill Stream painting. I hadn’t.

‘The Mill Stream’. c. 1814. Oil on canvas. H 71.1 x W 91.5 cm. The building we see is Willy Lott’s Cottage.

I paused and looked. And looked closer, and closer and squinted and eventually he pointed it out to me. There it was a brush stroke of red and two of blue, the kingfisher.

A sequence ending in a spot magnification (thanks to computer wizardry) to capture Constable’s kingfisher flying across the Mill Stream.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

15 thoughts on “John Constable -A Suffolk Artist”

    1. That’s kind of you to say. I have to admit I did find it quite a dark and gloomy show, but that might also have been the general mood back just before Christmas. Also, as you know it has to be lowlighting to protect the art, but it does make getting good photographs difficult. We do try though, don’t we?

  1. It’s so hard for us to see Constable, star exhibit on many a chocolate box, with fresh eyes. But his forensic interest in his surroundings and especially clouds made him new and innovative to his contemporaries, as this post shows. I’d love to get to this exhibition, but … let’s see.

    1. I have to admit I’ve never really got Constable. I see his value in the formal trajectory of Art History, but I can’t think of a single work that grabs my attention. There’s not enough colour and when there is I find it all a little cloying. Looking at the paintings I don’t seem to be able to rustle up much historical imagination, a failing I know, but now (oops) I’ve given away what a jaded cynical old bird I am.

      1. I had to work at it, because, I think, of the chocolate box thing. He’s not someone I’d ever want to collect, if I did that sort of thing, but I can enjoy moments losing myself in his land and cloudscapes.

  2. As you said in one of the comments, Constable did seem to leave a dark and gloomy shadow, but his clouds are superb! And do you think he was displaying a sense of fun when he slipped that little kingfisher in there?
    His paintings are a valuable depiction of rural life. It made me wonder what people who emigrated to Australia from that area in his lifetime made of the landscape? Surely they had to be nostalgic for their “bucolic home country”.

    1. Oh, yes, I expect they were. Every time I recognise familiar English names on any of the maps you post, I think, yup, another setlement named by either a pompous old Brit or a homesick one! I noticed there’s a Holbrook in NSW and the English village of that name is just down the road from where I live in Ipswich. Of course, that’s Ipswich, Suffolk and not Ipswich, Queensland. 😉

      1. You made me giggle. Before WWI, Holbrook was named Germanton. Then it was renamed in honour of the English submariner who won a VC! How’s that for patriotism. He didn’t even come here!

  3. How kind of the gallery worker to point out that detail and add an important plus to your visit. I also love Constable’s skies. It’s interesting what you say about his decision to keep his homestead paintings to himself and how that contrasts with today’s show all tendencies…we’re living in such a strange time that way. Great post!

    1. Thank you. I found the post difficult to write as I am not a huge fan of Constable despite him being such a lauded son of Suffolk. However, there’s no doubt about it he absolutely captured the big skies and clouds that are so familiar to anyone living here in the county.
      I think the gallery chap was only too pleased to pass on the kingfisher detail and share his appreciation of the work and the artist.

  4. I gained a new appreciation for Constable after I went to Flatford and saw Willy Lott’s cottage for myself…..and later painted it a couple of times! I like how relatively unchanged it all is and how easy it is to imagine Constable sitting outside the back door of Flatford Mill, painting Lott’s cottage and other buildings and I really loved Bridge Cottage with its tiny doorways and interesting roof arrangement! Combined together, the paintings and the actual buildings really bring that period of history to life for me! Thanks for reminding me all about it!!! (I actually sold one small painting of Willy Lott’s cottage to a friend….she has it on her mantle as inspiration for a trip she plans to make there, one day)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment and express your appreciation of this little part of the world. I think the Flatford Mill area has benefited from centuries as a sleepy backwater and then 75 years plus as a national treasure in the care of the National Trust. How exciting to paint Willy Lott’s cottage. There’s nothing as revealing as looking to paint and to re-present and offer your version of such a famous subject to make you look again and re-see the Constable interpretation. It must have been an exhilarating experience.

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