A little strip of country on the borders of Essex and Suffolk, not ten miles in length, and but two or three in breadth, presenting to the casual observer few features more striking than are to be seen in many other parts of England, but hailed with delight by painters for its simple charm, has exercised a wider influence upon modern landscape painting than all the noble scenery of Switzerland or the glories of Italy; for here was nurtured that last and greatest master of that school of English landscape painting, which made the Eastern Counties famous in the annals of art. He was so essentially English, it might be said local, in his feeling, that he never left his country, and produced his greatest works within the narrow limits of his native valley; in whom love of locality was indeed the very basis of his art.

The Hay Wain.

The Hay Wain.

Constable, for it was he, like Rembrandt, was the son of a miller, and was born at a time when the winds and flowing waters were powers in the land, bearing a golden harvest on their health-giving and invisible currents, turning sails upon countless hill-tops, and wheels in every river—before the supplanter, steam, was even dreamed of. His earliest recollections were mingled with the busy clatter of wheels, and the whirr of sails, as they sped round before the wind, was the music of his boyhood. His father, good man of the world as he was, holding a high opinion of the solid comforts gained by following his own profitable calling, placed his son, at the age of seventeen, in charge of a windmill, hoping thereby to curb his rising enthusiasm for the more glorious but less substantial pursuit of art. Alas! how little can we predict the effect of our actions. This one, framed to divert his purpose in life, was the very means of leading him to study more closely the ever-varying beauties of the sky, with its matchless combinations of form and colour, and all the subtle differences of atmosphere, which in after-life formed a distinctive feature in his work; and, for a landscape-painter, perhaps no early training could have been better. His daily occupation by bringing him continually face to face with Nature, and necessitating a constant observance of all her changing phenomena, trained his heart and eye to discover her secrets, hidden from the careless, but revealed to all true lovers of her wisdom.

The effect upon a temperament so artistic as Constable's was as permanent as it was quickly apparent. In less than a year we find his father reluctantly converted to his son's views in the choice of a career, and consenting to his sojourn in London, to learn the principles and technicalities of his profession, which he soon strove to forget and subsequently set at defiance. Two years of studio work was sufficient to convince him that his school was the open air; and in his own country, amid the scenes of his boyhood, he could shake off the chains of fashion, which bound the landscape-painter of that day, and go straight to nature for his inspiration. Concerning this he writes: "For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeing truth at second-hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men; I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes which may employ me—there is room for a natural painter;" a prediction which was hardly fulfilled in his lifetime, for, with the majority of even intelligent lovers of art, his works were rarely understood and never popular, though the appreciative sympathy of an enlightened few kept him from despair. But, appreciated or not, he had found his life's work, and henceforth his mission was to depict the scenes around his old home, and to express the love he felt so keenly for "every stile and stump, and every lane in dear Bergholt."

"Painting," he writes, "is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour—those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful."

How lovingly he repaid this debt of gratitude to his native valley will be seen by the tender care he bestowed in depicting its beauties; indeed, the strongest impression produced after visiting Constable's country and again turning to a study of his works, is the marvellous sense of locality he has embodied in them. You seem to breathe the very air of Suffolk and hear again the "sound of water escaping from mill-dams," and see once more "the willows, the old rotten planks, the slimy posts, and brickwork," he delighted in. In spite of the fifty years which have elapsed since he laid aside his brush for ever, with all the accidents of time and season, the subjects he painted are still to be easily found, and clearly distinguished by anyone at all acquainted with his works. The only exception is in the original of the famousCornfield, now in the National Gallery. Here the enemy has been busy, and by the aid of his children Growth and Decay, has succeeded in transforming the subject out of all recognition, tearing down the trees on the left, enlarging the group on the right, shutting out the view of Stratford Church, and choking up the brook from which the boy is drinking. Nor has Time been idle with this same boy, who six years ago, was carried to his last resting-place in Bergholt Churchyard, aged sixty-five....

It is not, however, in Bergholt village that we must seek for the scenes which made Constable a painter, but down in the quiet hollow a mile and a half to the eastward on the banks of his much-loved Stour, and around the paternal mill of Flatford, not improved as is the one at Dedham into hideousness, but remaining much as it was in the artist's day. Both mills were the property of Golding Constable, witnessed thereto in the latter, the initials G.C., carved in irregular characters deep in the huge mill scales, still legible beneath the dust of a century, as enduring almost as the memory of his gifted son.

A low uneven structure is Flatford Mill, with many gables and queer outbuildings; standing on an island, the millhouse backing the main stream and facing a pool formed by the mill-tail, which, flowing through the mill, rejoins the main stream a hundred yards below. To this spot came Constable many a hundred times, we may be sure, fishing in the stream, or sketching with his close ally, John Dunthorne, the village plumber, and a lover of nature; their performances with the brush doubtless puzzling old Willy Lott—whose farmhouse occupies the opposite side of the pool; but though his judgment might not have been so technically sound upon art matters as upon the merits of those hornless Suffolk cattle, said to have been unconsciously introduced by Constable into pictures painted in far distant countries, yet his criticisms would have been worth hearing by virtue of their originality. Willy cared but little for the outer world and its mode of thinking, any curiosity he may have ever had concerning it being amply satisfied by the experiences of four nights, separated by long intervals, spent away from his ancestral roof in four-score years. That this house of his possessed a peculiar fascination for Constable is evident from its forming an important feature in two of his best known works, the Hay Wain and the Valley Farm, besides appearing in numerous sketches.

Every foot of ground round the old mill seems to have imparted a yearning in him to paint it. The lock in the main stream, with its tide of life passing through, busier then than in these days of railways; the bridge above, with the picturesque cottages still standing, all were lingered over, studied, and painted with an affection inspired by the recollection of those golden hours of his boyhood. Here, doubtless, was the scene of those stolen interviews with his future wife, following the ecclesiastical ban placed on his suit by the lady's grandfather, Dr. Rhudde, the Rector, whose belief in the preordination of marriage was tempered in this case by a wise discretion on the subject of settlements. To the young painter's inability to satisfy this scruple may be attributed the Doctor's discouragement of any practical application of the theory. The marriage duly took place despite the old gentleman, who, although not apparently reconciled during the remainder of his life, pleasantly surprised the young couple by leaving his granddaughter four thousand pounds when he died.

The mill-tail is used as a thoroughfare, up which the hay is carted, from the meadows on the opposite bank of the river, a shallow and stony bedded back-water meeting it at its junction with the main stream. Down this back-water in July the heavy cart-horses drag the sweet-scented haywains knee deep and axle deep in water, leaving feathery wisps of hay hanging from the willows, and clinging to the tall rushes upon either hand, the waggoner bravely astride the leader, while haymakers and children are seated on top of the load, not a little nervous in mid-stream, and clinging tightly when the horses are struggling up the deep ascent into the stack-yard.

A contrast, indeed, is the bustle of the hay-making with the splash of the teams and the merry voices of the children to the solitude which reigns supreme in this silent, currentless backwater during the rest of the year. Winding between the long flat meadows away from the traffic of the river it becomes in early summer a veritable museum of aquatic plants: lilies choke its passage, and the ancient gates, giving access to the adjoining fields, lie lost in creamy meadow-sweet, their sodden and decaying posts wreathed in sweet forget-me-nots, while sword-like rushes rear their points till they part the grey-green willow leaves above. The silence would become oppressive were it not for an indistinct murmur from the working world, which forms a fitful background to the prevailing stillness; the distant roar of a train as it rushes on its journey to the palpitating heart of London, the faint sound of a mowing machine in the meadows, or the crack of a whip up the tow-path as a barge moves up to the primitive lock, add a touch of human interest without disturbing the sense of restfulness from the eager hurry of Nineteenth Century existence....

Constable's country may be said to extend along the Stour valley, anywhere within walking distance of his home, Neyland, Stoke, Langham, Stratford, and in the opposite direction, Harwich, all having furnished material for his fruitful pencil. But, despite much admirable work done in each of these places, it was to the few acres of river and meadow round the old mill at Flatford that he owed his first awakening to the wonders of nature around him. To these, his first and truest masters, his memory was ever turning for inspiration; and during the life-long battle he waged with all that was untrue, he was certain of finding there encouragement to victory and solace in disappointment.

Magazine of Art (1891).