Constable painted only three religious paintings, and when you see the one in St Mary’s Church in Dedham you realise why. The Ascension is a tricky topic, even for a master painter like John Constable, and his Jesus Christ looks distinctly awkward as he ascends into heaven — like a bloke at a toga party trying to dance to the house band. Never mind. Here in Dedham you can wander through the subtle East Anglian scenery he painted, and marvel at a nirvana that remains virtually unchanged.
The tower of St Mary’s is a familiar motif in Constable’s paintings, and it’s a thrill to walk along the River Stour and see it as he saw it. It’s a few miles along the river to Flatford, where his dad worked as a miller, and where he painted ‘The Hay Wain’. Two hundred years later, the location of this painting still looks much the same. Constable went to school in Dedham. As a boy, he used to walk along this riverbank every day.
Constable isn’t the only great artist who painted Dedham Vale. Sir Alfred Munnings also lived here, from 1919 until his death in 1959, in a handsome villa called Castle House, now an intimate museum. Munnings’s reputation has taken a battering since he died, partly on account of his traditional style, but mainly on account of a tipsy speech he gave as President of the RA, denouncing modern art as ‘damned nonsense’.
The speech was broadcast by the BBC and Munnings became a bogeyman, but his work never stopped selling and now the critics are catching up. This spring, Castle House is hosting an exhibition of his paintings of the Canadian Cavalry, returning here from Canada for the first time in a century. Made in France during the first world war, they’re intensely atmospheric. He was brilliant at painting horses, the best since Stubbs, capturing their distinct personalities. A miller’s son, like Constable, he was raised here in East Anglia, and horses had been an integral part of his life. ‘Painting them, feeding them, riding them, thinking about them, I hope I have learned to understand their ways,’ he wrote. Munnings is renowned for his equestrian paintings, but for me his finest works are his studies of the Stour, and there are loads at Castle House.
Dedham is an exquisite mix of Georgian townhouses and medieval timbered buildings. There are plenty of nice places to eat. The Sun Inn does fine dining in a cosy, comfy public house, and the Essex Rose Tea House is a quaint and friendly café. The Stour marks the ancient boundary between Essex and Suffolk. You’ll crisscross it several times if you walk along the river. I ate at Le Talbooth, a smart restaurant in an old tollbooth that used to guard this river crossing, and spent the night at Idle Waters, a Tudor cottage across the river that’s now a plush self-catering apartment. Both buildings appear in ‘The Vale of Dedham’ by Constable, now in the Scottish National Gallery.
Next morning the sky had cleared and I was in no hurry to go home. I walked to Flatford and back again, and stopped for coffee in the medieval village hall. Walking to Manningtree, to catch my train, I stopped off at St Mary’s to see the grave of Tom Keating, the (in)famous art forger, who lived here. His ‘The Angel of Dedham’, painted in the style of Constable, hangs in the church — but unlike Constable’s ‘The Ascension’, it’s not on public view.