Martin Gayford

How John Constable got masterpiece after masterpiece out of a tiny corner of rural Suffolk

Constable’s paintings – as with the paintings of many ‘stay-at-home’ artists – teach us to see the beauty on our doorstep

Dear old Bergholt: ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’, 1815, by John Constable (Bridgeman Images)

Before his marriage John Constable returned regularly in early summer to his native village of East Bergholt. When he wrote from there to his wife-to-be, Maria Bicknell, he almost always exclaimed that Suffolk was ‘in great beauty’. His enthusiasm was never more eloquent than on 22 June 1812, when he declared: ‘Nothing can exceed the beautiful appearance of the country at this time, its freshness, its amenity — the very breeze that passes the window is delightful, it has the voice of Nature.’

I often think about Constable (1776–1837) as I pace across the water meadows on my daily constitutional — partly because this too is an East Anglian landscape not unlike the one he was writing about: flat, leafy, watery, abounding in willows.

Of course, it’s difficult now to see such terrain without thinking of the artist’s name. But Constable also comes to mind because he showed just how much visual pleasure can be extracted from a small area. The country along the Stour near Flatford, a short walk from East Bergholt, is no larger than the zone of riverside Cambridge I stroll around — probably smaller — yet out of this rustic corner he got picture after picture, many of them masterpieces.

That’s often the case with landscape artists. Some, like Constable’s great contemporary, opposite and equal Turner, travel the world in search of new views. But many are what Constable, with 17th-century Dutch masters in mind, called ‘stay-at-home people’. Constable was one himself. He never went abroad. Almost all his greatest works are connected with a few locations where he lived or which were connected with those he loved: Bergholt, Hampstead, Salisbury, Brighton. They were his places.

Many artists are what Constable, with 17th-century Dutch masters in mind, called ‘stay-at-home people’

Among my places are the greens and commons of Cambridge. I’ve walked across them many hundreds of times.

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