Now my first dilemma in writing up this visit was what to call it. The National Trust handbook includes ‘Flatford: Bridge Cottage’ in its East of England section so I settled on this; however, the guidebook available at Flatford is simply entitled ‘Constable Country’ and this is just as apt, although it covers a wider area than merely Flatford itself and takes in the many walking trails either side of the River Stour. (NB: Incidentally, although this is included in my Suffolk list of properties, anyone taking a walk on the other side of the river from Bridge Cottage will actually be in Essex as the river forms the boundary between the two counties.)
Flatford, named after the ‘flat ford’ that crosses the river at Willie Lott’s House (the site of the famous Hay-Wain painting) is a hamlet of just a few dwellings, all of which are now owned by the National Trust, with the exception of the old Granary, which is a B&B. However, only Bridge Cottage is open to NT visitors as the other buildings are leased by the Field Studies Centre and you will need to book on an art or nature course in order to go inside Flatford Mill, Valley Farm or Willie Lott’s House (incidentally, Willie was a local farmer whose descendants later bought Flatford Mill from the Constable family).
Bridge Cottage houses a small exhibition about John Constable and although the size of the building limits the space available for this, I admit that I was hoping to gain a little more insight from the displays. Fortunately, the Trust lays on regular guided tours of Flatford and its key locations so the exhibition can be readily supplemented with further information. Our hour-long tour (which took an hour and twenty minutes!) filled us in on a few interesting facts about Constable and his life, love and work.
One interesting fact about Constable was that like a lot of other household names in the world of the arts, he never really benefited from his work during his own lifetime, so one wonders how he would react if we could now tell him that one of his paintings fetched £22 million when it was sold in 2011. Delighted, possibly? Or sick as a dog?! The original price tags for his pictures were very much lower than this and he actually sold relatively few works during his career. In fact, although he had studied at the Royal Academy and became a Royal Academician later in his life, you could say that art was never really his career, simply his passion. I always think this is incredibly sad and it would be much nicer if talent is recognised while the talented one is still alive to savour it. Still, at the same time, any aspiring artist (or writer) can live with the hope that their pictures (or novels) might shoot to prominence at some stage in the future. (I live with that particular hope myself!)
The best thing about our guided tour around Flatford was that we were taken to specific spots where Constable would once have sat to sketch or paint and the guide brought prints of some of the paintings with her so we could compare what Constable painted with what we can see today. There is the dry dock where his ‘Boat-building near Flatford Mill’ was painted, the view of ‘Flatford Mill from the Lock’ and, of course, the view of the ford itself where ‘The Hay-Wain’ once made its way through the water. Our tour ended at this spot next to Willie Lott’s House and I was actually quite surprised that I was the only person waiting to take a photo across the water with the cottage in the corner, re-creating ‘The Hay-Wain’ (except without the actual hay-wain, of course!)
I have seen ‘The Hay-Wain’ itself in the National Gallery but it was very interesting to take the tour and learn a little more about Constable’s techniques and habits. It wasn’t an art history course or anything like that, we were simply treated to a few little insights such as the fact that Constable always added splashes of white and red to his paintings to provide a natural contrast to nature’s browns and greens. He also tended to paint trees with leaves on only one side so the branches and structure of the tree were visible in the painting. Meanwhile, Pickles, the family dog, cropped up in a number of his pictures and you can see him there in the Hay-Wain, watching the cart and its occupants from the safety of dry land. Next time I’m in London, I may seek out a few more Constables at the Tate and the V&A as I will now look at them with a slightly different eye.
The story of Constable’s initially doomed but later successful love for Maria Bicknell was briefly summarised by our guide but I bought a book called ‘Constable in Love’ from the NT shop so I can find out a little more about the man and his personal life. It was also nice to see copies of a couple of portraits of Constable in the exhibition, just to get an idea of what he looked like. I found the self portrait interesting as it depicts a fairly long-nosed chap with a slightly scared look on his face. I’m not sure if this was just his permanent expression or whether he was simply worried about how his portrait was going to turn out. Another portrait of Constable in his later years was also interesting as it was drawn by Daniel Maclise. I can’t really count this as an NT Connection for my list but it’s still interesting as just two visits ago at Basildon Park I heard the tale of Daniel Maclise’s affair with Henrietta Sykes, a liaison that ultimately led to Maclise’s friend Dickens naming Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes after Henrietta’s husband.
I will just finish off with a few details of what else you can get up to at Flatford as it offers quite a lot for a longer visit. As well as the Constable info laid on by the Trust, there is also a visitor’s centre providing more information about the Dedham Vale and the various walks, while you can also hire a rowing boat to potter about on the Stour or take a boat trip on the Trusty tour boats. The tearoom has lovely views across the river and offers drinks, cakes and light lunches, while there is also an RSPB Wild Garden so you can sit quietly and watch the local wildlife. Dog walkers are also welcome at Flatford and over the course of my visit I met a variety of friendly woofits, including a slightly manic spaniel (aren’t they all?!) and a genteel golden retriever (same comment applies!).
Highlights: Matching the scenes to the paintings
Refreshments: Tea and toasted teacake; tomato and basil soup with a tomato and pesto scone (the ‘scone of the month’ which was described as the ‘scone equivalent of two weeks in Tuscany’… I don’t think such ambitious claims are particularly wise as even though I’m not the biggest fan of savoury scones I fear we were always going to be a little disappointed).
Purchase(s): Guidebook; a few cards; ‘Constable in Love’ by Martin Gayford
NT Connections: Stourhead – Constable visited Sir Richard Colt Hoare at Stourhead and made a sketch of the gardens (currently at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts); Petworth – another stately home where Constable was once a guest.