The first thing I ever learnt about the artist John Constable was a little trick he used in his paintings to bring his landscapes to life: amid the many shades of green, brown and blue of the earth and sky, he’d place dashes of red paint to add resonance to the scene.
Take his most well-known painting The Hay Wain, painted in 1821. Among the flecks of brown and green brush marks, the saddles for the three horses in centre of the composition are all painted in red.
These red dashes have the effect of subtly disrupting the flow of nature’s colours, silently upsetting the emphasis on earthy tones.
After I learned about this little trick with the red paint, I took a deeper interest in John Constable, a 19th century British landscape artist. I looked out for the red dots in all the paintings of his I saw, and sure enough, they were present in every one I came across.
The The Hay Wain became one of Constable’s most successful paintings after it was shown in the Salon in Paris in 1824, where it was singled out for a gold medal and moved to a prominent place in the gallery. In a letter at the time, Constable wrote, “My Paris affairs go on very well.”
Constable showed three paintings in the Salon that year, and was praised by several prominent French artists of the time, including Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix. He wrote of the reaction: “They are struck with the their vivacity and freshness, things unknown to their own pictures.”
Constable was conscious of his unique approach to making art, which turned away from the academic tradition of copying from old paintings and instead used direct studies of nature as his primary source. The originality of Constable’s technique would have a pronounced influence on the course of French art, most notably among the members of the Barbizon school.
From his home in the county of Suffolk, Constable made landscape a formal subject matter — instead of it being merely a theatrical backdrop for historical or mythological themes. He remained enthralled by his native countryside, painting the trees and fields gathered around the River Stour, horses and boat-builders, rainbows and thunderstorms, all with an enthusiasm that at times forwent the anonymity of the invisible brushstroke for a more exuberant, expressive style.
Constable wrote in 1821:
But I should paint my own places best…. I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They make me a painter…. that is I had often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil. The sound of water escaping from mill dams…. willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork. I love such things…. As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places.
Constable had reached this point after a frustrating sojourn in London where, in 1799, he entered the Royal Academy as a student. The fashion at the time was for Italianate landscapes with classical overtones; Constable’s interest lay in the changing effects of light and weather, and later returned to the Suffolk countryside to make detailed studies of the sky and the river meadows of the Stour.
Constable now dedicated his energies to reproducing the effects of changing weather conditions, often adopting expressive brush techniques. In some of his paintings of thunderstorms, for instance, the pursuit of naturalness is relinquished and in its place are broad energetic strokes, making visible the three-way relationship between subject, artwork and artist in creative conjunction. The brushstroke becomes the demonstration — the visible presence — of the artist’s hand at work.
A few years ago I took a trip to “Constable country”. My purpose was to get closer to him if that was possible, and maybe gain some insight into the lessons that taught him as a painter.
From London I travelled by train to the tiny station of Manningtree, on the border between the shires of Essex and Suffolk. I watched the station arrive through the carriage window, such an isolated and windswept place — so it seemed on that grey September day.
I was the only person to step from the train into the empty station. The air was still and cool. To my right, the land strewn with thickets carried the train track south. I watched the train curve away across a bridge and out of sight, then I noticed there was a canteen with an A-frame blackboard positioned outside. The canteen appeared to be open so I went in.
Inside was a bar and a cafeteria area with seating. There were beer taps and peanuts hanging from the bar and homemade sandwiches and buttered scones lining the counter. There were also a number of punters, taxi-drivers or railway workmen, I didn’t know which, who kept the atmosphere simple and calm. Some chaps at a table were eating baked beans from a plate; they all looked up when I approached for directions.
“Can you tell me the way to Flatford Mill?”
“Flatford Mill? East Bergholt?” The men glanced to each other. One of them raised his arm like an arrow on a compass.
“Are you on foot?” another said.
“Need a taxi?” asked the one next to him.
“No, I’m on foot. Is it far?”
The glances passed between the men again, as if to nominate which one of them would give me the bad news.
“You’re walking? It’s a good distance. Two hours on foot I reckon.”
“Two hours? Are you sure?”
Another man spoke up from the next table along. “Not that far. Need a taxi son?”
“No,” I said to him. “Just directions.”
“Okay kid. In that case, follow the track to the bridge. Take a left. Follow the road around, then go left at the roundabout. Then just keep on going.”
“It’s a good distance,” another said. “A good hour and a half on foot I reckon.”
“I’ll find my way. Thank you.”
The four men all raised a hand to bid me well on my journey, then returned to their plates of baked beans. A young woman in a pink tracksuit came from behind the bar and caught my attention. “Don’t mind them,” she said. “East Bergholt you want? It’s not so far.” She pushed open the door to the platform and pointed to the nearby bridge: “Go under. See the brow of the hill? You have to go up there and over. The mill is on the other side.”
I thanked her and got on my way. The slender road slalomed up the hillside, gentle and long-winded. The pavement soon ran out so I walked on the roadside, keeping close to the hedge as unsuspecting cars hurtled around each bend.
The roadside eventually filled up with houses and cottages as it flattened out on the crest of the hill. This was the village of East Bergholt, Constable’s birthplace. I walked through to the other end of the village where the hill sloped away down to the River Stour. The road thinned to the size of a track, feeding through a cavernous tunnel of trees until in concluded at the foot of the hill, where a collection of buildings were gathered around the banks of the river. There were farmhouses, sagging cottages, sheds for boat building, a mill. The very places I’d seen in Constable’s paintings.
I spent a few minutes glancing round the small museum there, which had a low ceiling and timber beams. Hung between the beams were reproduced images of the works Constable painted from around the Stour; Boat Building, View on the Stour near Dedham, The White Horse, The Haywain, Flatford Mill. Each one pleasingly familiar, near at hand.
Outside again, I crossed a bridge to the other bank of the river where there was a view of Flatford Mill. Further along a pathway was a canal lock which he also painted, and a second view of the Mill. To find the view of The Hay Wain I had to return across the river and along a path behind the mill.
The actual scene painted in The Hay Wain is of a small inlet of water, the mill stream, beside a cottage lived in — at the time — by a man named Willy Lott. I strolled around the corner and come upon the languid cream-coloured cottage, careful not to rush, in case I arrived before my anticipation was quite ready. It was an unassuming building through the filter of grey September mist.
This was the cottage, this was the mill stream, this was the place where the easel was positioned. Now there was nothing between geography, painting and me. Nothing between the artist and my footprints.
I peered across the view, across the still water laden with pond weed and thick green grasses around its rim. Everything was green today, that thick opaque green taken from the rind of a cucumber. The water was green, and the sky a shade of green too. Willy Lott’s house sprouted from the foliage like an unusual fungus, cream-coloured, organic, rooted in the earths of the earth.
But then, I wondered what I should do next? Firstly, perhaps spend a couple of minutes, out of technical interest, comparing the postcard I had of The Hay Wain with the actual scene. I could, for instance, determine the extent of artistic distortion that Constable applied: he gave much more depth to the whole vista, exaggerated the area of the water and probably the size of the cottage on the left. There were fewer trees at the rear of the water than in the painting, and less foliage around the banks too. The water seemed more animated in Constable’s vision, and there was no horse-drawn-wagon passing through it, of course. Nevertheless, it was the same scene, and nothing could contradict that.
I paced up and down the pathway a few times, looking for some way to consummate my arrival. My anticipation was primed, but I sensed that the climax I had come in search of was beyond this acre of land, beyond this corner of green pond water.
On cool September days like this, when nobody else is around, things can easily turn into modest silences, inconclusive wanderings, omitting results. I searched for a seal of some kind. My guess was that some visitors perhaps sit there with a sketchbook and draw what they can see, to do what Constable did, in order to be like him for a precious while. But I wasn’t in the mood to do that, and besides the air was so damp that I don’t think a sheet of paper would stand up well.
I was looking for something simpler, less contrived. I paced steadily up and down the pathway, in long loops as if by circling the area I could lasso it, in a state of mind that is perhaps akin to meditation. Then I noticed in the hedge behind me there were a number of autumn blackberries on the side of a bush. The closer I looked, the more blackberries I made out, ripe for eating and within reached too.
So I chose these berries as my seal, electing a spot for my boots to grip the ground and stand with my back to the water. I ate. I ate every single blackberry in my reach without taking a step. This was the seal. This was the connection between me and the earth here; around 20 blackberries I picked, delicious ripe blackberries.
I returned to the museum and the gift shop next door to it and asked the lady inside for an alternative route back to Manningtree station other than by road. I wanted to stay longer, but there was little else to do. She told me that I could follow a track in the opposite bearing, across fields instead of on the tarmac, approaching Manningtree from the other direction.
Back across the bridge I trudged into the wide expanse of meadows behind. Some dog walkers were chatting to each other on the other side whilst their animals leap over one another in play. I walked along the sticky pathway beside the river, revisiting the views of the mill and the lock; soon I was out in the fields, over styles and eventually disappearing from the view of the dog-walkers and the mill altogether. It became muddy under foot. I left behind the tread-marks of my boots in the mud as other hikers and their dogs had left behind theirs: the anonymous adventure of finding one’s way across a stretch of land, each footstep fixing a mark in the mud, disturbing pheasants and blackbirds and blue and grey tits as I went.
The feeling of creative expenditure, as I expended energy in each footstep, quickly grew. I thought I could take a pen to an Ordinance Survey map and draw a red line that would indicate the roundabout circular route I was taking, from the station to East Bergholt along the road and back again across fields. Outside this circle, or part of it, I might draw another much larger circle, that worked in the four-dimensions of space and time, memory and inspiration. They would begin and end in the same place without crossing themselves in between. They would be made without the use of a straight edge. Above all, they would indicate a dual physical and mental area that, by the very act of encompassing it, would take on a greater significance then before the circles had been drawn. Draw a line on a map, encircle the area known as Constable Country; I have visited there.
Would you like to get…
A free guide to the Essential Styles in Western Art History, plus updates and exclusive news about me and my writing? Download for free here.