"But I should paint my own places best... I associate my careless boyhood to all that lies on the banks of the Stour. They made me a painter. That is I often thought of pictures of them before I ever touched a pencil." (From a display at Bridge Cottage, Flatford Mill)
The nineteenth century artist John Constable found most of his inspiration close to his childhood home in the Stour Valley in Suffolk. Living in East Bergholt, his father Golding Constable, a wealthy miller, often had business at nearby Flatford Mill. This lovely little area was to provide the scene for many of Constable's most famous paintings, and has been preserved as a memorial. Maintaining this area as it was in Constable's time is difficult. East Anglia has sunk about 20cm relative to the sea over the last two hundred years, and water levels are rising all the time. Nevertheless scenes depicted in famous paintings are still easily recognisable.
Willy Lott's house.
Most famously there is the ford outside farmer Willy Lott's house. This is where the empty hay wagon makes its crossing in Constable's painting of 1821 The Haywain. Standing beside Willy Lott's house looking over the water brought home to me how important the idea of crossing over is in the painting. Constable was working during a crucial period of change in human history, as society crossed over from a rural to an urban industrial society.
Constable's famous painting of the hay wagon, suggests that crossing over is a part of daily life. The empty hay wagon will soon be crossing back full of hay and life will go on as normal. And yet there is also a sense of the irrevocable nature of change. It is low tide in the painting, and wheel marks left by the wagon wheels will soon be washed away by the rising tide. The life represented by the wagon will similarly pass. A visit to Flatford Mill made me think of how the world changes and stays the same, which perhaps is the feeling that comes over most powerfully in The Haywain.
The Haywain. This image is copyright free
Constable was a romantic painter, and there is no doubt he idealised nature and rural life. Nevertheless in the best of his paintings we see a realism to set alongside romance. There is no simple divide between the rural life Constable celebrated and the industrial society that was emerging. Crossing the bridge beside Bridge Cottage and turning left you will come to the lock depicted in Flatford Mill: scene on a navigable river. This 1817 painting shows a barge approaching the bank, a man on deck leaning hard on a pole as he guides the vessel in. Meanwhile in the foreground two young boys get ready to help pull the barge in. One boy is on the river bank, reaching down to the tow rope, while his companion sits on a horse, looking back. At first glace you would think they were playing. The shoeless boy on horse back rides without a saddle, and seemingly has jumped carelessly on the horse's back in a game. But looking more closely you realise these boys are at work. The man heaving on the pole isn't playing. He is relying on the boys to do their bit with the tow rope. The little boy on the horse looking back is waiting for the signal to start driving his horse forward. This is the realism that underlies the painting's romaticism. As with The Haywain opposites are held together. There is an innocence and peace, along with hard work which starts early.
Dry-dock at Flatford Mill
It should also be remembered that the mill represented an early form of industrial production. Not very far away in Lavenham, where for a short time Constable went to school, water power supported industrial scale cloth production. Visiting Lavenham today it is easy to see the town as a beautiful, quaint throwback to a pre industrial era. In fact Lavenham was an industrial town, in the same way that Flatford Mill was an industrial concern. Beside the mill a dry dock where barges were built for Golding Constable still survives. Boat Building Near Flatford Mill of 1817 famously depicts the building of a barge here, and confirms this lovely place as an industrial site.
A visit to Flatford Mill is a wonderful way into the paintings of Constable. A display in Bridge Cottage, owned by the National Trust, describes Constable's life and work. There is a tea room with great views over the river.
Boat Building At Flatford Mill. This image is copyright free
The Fields Studies Council run art courses using Flatford Mill, Valley Farm and Willy Lott's house. These buildings are not open to general visitors.
Opening Times: The area of Flatford Mill can be visited at any time during a walk along the Stour Valley.
Bridge Cottage opening: Opening hours for National Trust properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.
The property may close early during the winter if the weather is bad.
Address: Flatford Mill, Flatford, East Bergholt, Suffolk CO7 6UL
Directions: Come off the A12 onto the B1070 and then follow signs to Flatford. Flatford Mill is a good place to visit by train. Catch a train to Manningtree station, walk the short distance to the river, and then turn left onto the river path. Follow the path for about two miles, which will take you to Flatford. Click here for an interactive map centred on Flatford Mill.
Access: Paths around the site are good and generally flat, although there is rather a steep incline on the bridge. There is level access to Bridge Cottage. There is not much room inside and the floors are uneven. There are adapted toilets in the information centre. One motorised chair is available for visitor use.
telephone: 01206 298260
for art courses: 01206 298283